"What we've got here," Simon Rogan explains, sitting in the conservatory of his recently opened restaurant with rooms, L'Enclume, "is an opportunity to put Cartmel on the national map." No matter that the Cumbrian village is famous as the home of sticky toffee pudding, Rogan is determined that L'Enclume will be the name that springs to mind whenever Cartmel is mentioned, and he's unabashed in his ambition to become "the Rick Stein of the North".
So, what exactly is it that Rogan has here? After all, Cartmel isn't blessed with Padstow's sunny climate, while L'Enclume lacks the gobsmacking views of established Lakeland destinations Sharrow Bay and Holbeck Ghyll (though, it must be said, the vista of Cartmel Priory is impressive). But what this new pretender does have is an abundance of metropolitan pizzazz and a chef-owner whose individual vision should soon be attracting nationwide attention.
L'Enclume (the name is the French word for "anvil") is housed in a 12th-century smithy that has been decorated without a hint of chintz. Neutral furnishings are offset by colourful floral arrangements and striking paintings. Even "olde worlde" touches such as the blacksmith's hooping wheel look like modern art installations. "This area is devoid of establishments like this," Rogan asserts. "To get a good meal in Cumbria you have to go to a country house hotel. I wanted to create something very contemporary in an ancient building. When people come in here, there's a cosmopolitan feel to it."
Cartmel, however, was not Rogan's first choice of location when, two years ago, he handed in his head chef's whites at Addington Palace, near Croydon, Surrey, to launch a solo career funded by his own savings and a bank loan. But, when two potential premises in Brighton both fell through, he overcame his reservations about working so far from London - and the fact that the building was covered in scaffolding, with a hole in the ground where the kitchen now is - and took the leasehold on the Cartmel site.
Possibly, L'Enclume is still a little too cosmopolitan for local tastes. Instead of a private room, the restaurant has what's billed as a "salon privé". The website includes directions for customers arriving by helicopter. And, with à la carte starters averaging £12 and mains £22, Rogan's cooking would look expensive in London, let alone the Lakes. "There's a reticence among local people to try us out," Rogan admits. "If we were slap-bang in the middle of London, we'd be full; but Cartmel is a tough nut to crack. I assumed when we opened there would have been a lot of interest from locals. But it's been tough."
What was also tough was missing the summer tourist season after problems levelling the dining-room floor delayed the opening of L'Enclume by a month. Still, not being full every night has given Rogan and his eight-strong team the breathing space to fine-tune the front of house and to lay the ground for what will determine L'Enclume's reputation more than any up-to-date decor: the menu.
Local incomprehension is likely to increase when, come the spring, Rogan launches a 16-course, £90 tasting dinner that he describes as a "blueprint" for what will follow. Certainly, it marks a bold move away from Rogan's current modern French cooking to something altogether more original.
Seasoning - herbs, in particular - is the focus of the new menu. "I'll be using some damned weird stuff," Rogan promises, "throwing out the rule book of what conventionally goes with what. Every meat and fish will have its own concoction of dried herbs and spices."
To this end, he has employed a teacher to research locally growing herbs, which will be specially cultivated for L'Enclume by an organic farmer.
Diners will be able to sample the results in dishes such as gelée of duck accompanied by caraway parfait and sweet corn bonbons, and pigeon salad with bergamot salsa and roasted ramsons (wild garlic). And, unlike many multi-course menus, there will be no progression from starter-type dishes to dessert. "It's just for the taste and texture," Rogan says. "Each course is literally just a taste. It doesn't build up to anything."
Despite the apparent strangeness of his project, Rogan is keen to distance himself from comparisons with the kitchen-as-laboratory approach of Heston Blumenthal, insisting that he's simply resurrecting herbs that have fallen out of favour. "I wouldn't say that any of these dishes are bold or unusual combinations," Rogan maintains. "At the end of the day, these are natural herbs with their own flavours. If there's any boldness, it's having the courage to put it on the menu in the first place."
Nor does he claim that his cooking is influenced by any of the big names he has worked with - including Marco Pierre White, John Burton-Race and, notably, Jean-Christophe Novelli at Geddes, Gordleton Mill, Floyd's and Rhinefield House - though he will admit to admiring what French chef Marc Veyrat has achieved with Alpine herbs and saps at L'Auberge de l'Eridan and La Ferme de mon Père.
But, while he declares himself to be his own man, constraints do remain, not least balancing creativity with commercial realities. So, while Rogan's aim is to offer diners something they've never had before, the 16-course menu will not be compulsory: dishes will be available in larger portions on both the à la carte and table d'hôte menus (a not-bad £29 for three courses). There's also space for the social niceties of morning coffee and afternoon tea, though it's an assiette gourmande that's served rather than a plate of cakes. "If you're different, people will check you out," is Rogan's credo, and he's aware that a cup of coffee might lead to a dinner booking.
Increasingly, Rogan anticipates that diners for the 50-seat restaurant will be hanging around for breakfast, too, by booking one of L'Enclume's seven guest rooms. "We can't concentrate on just locals," Rogan says, "so it's essential to have rooms. People are not going to come all this way for a meal and then go and find accommodation somewhere else."
Guest rooms are decorated in chic-but-quirky style. Each has been furnished by leading interior companies such as Zoffany and Beaumont and Fletcher, while furniture is on loan from Anthemion, a local antiques firm, an arrangement that's as eye-catching for guests as it's economical for Rogan. "I've got fabrics in here that, if I was buying myself, I couldn't have afforded. And it's nice to have a £10,000 wardrobe in one of my bedrooms."
Rogan can foresee the day when, rather than having only seven guest rooms, a whole house in Cartmel will be given over to accommodation. But, though the rooms are charming, it's the food that will always be the focus here. Rogan confesses that his ultimate ambition is to do away with the menu altogether, so that diners will simply trust in what has been put before them. That, and the hope that as L'Enclume brings fame and money into Cartmel locals will overcome their caution and become as proud of L'Enclume as they are of sticky toffee pudding.
L'Enclume, Cavendish Street, Cartmel, Cumbria LA11 6PZ
Tel: 01539 536362
Many of the herbs used at L'Enclume are rarely seen on British menus. Simon Rogan offers an introduction to his favourites.
Hyssop "Has a hot, minty taste, but is quite bitter as well, with an aftertaste a bit like rosemary and thyme. It's very good with fruit, so I've added it to poached apricots in scrambled eggs. But use it sparingly."
Myrtle "An all-in-one herb that's very adaptable in seasoning for meat and fish because it has quite a mix of flavour: juniper, allspice, rosemary, orange. It has a very cleansing taste."
Sweet cicely "This has very anise flavours, with hints of celery and lovage. It goes very well with fish, pumpkin and vanilla."
Sweet woodruff "Tastes and smells like new-mown hay - that's really all I can say it's like. It's very good with fruit, but I've done something a bit different and put it with crab and calamari."