Even in London, one of the most varied dining cities in the world, Simon Rogan’s latest venture has an aura of mystery and intrigue. The single sitting, catering to a maximum of eight guests, begins at 7:30pm sharp.
The address isn’t revealed on the website but provided after you make a reservation; if you’re using Google Maps, the trail will go cold down an alleyway outside a tanning salon. But look closely above a whited-out window and you’ll spot a little sign reading “Aulis”. Here, for a mere £250 a head, you have the undivided attention of two of Rogan’s top chefs, who will beguile you with one of the most adventurous tasting menus in the land.
Rogan, chef-proprietor of L’Enclume in Cartmel, which has won almost as many awards as it’s served hot dinners, said he wanted his latest venture to feel “proper underground”. And somehow, for an outpost of a multi-million pound empire, it does.
This is the third iteration of his experimental “development kitchen” – named after chef de partie Aulis Lehtimäki, a long-term colleague who passed away – with the original up in Cartmel and another that acted as the chef’s table at Fera in Claridges, until Rogan walked away from the venture last year (there were disputes about how many hours he was required to be in the kitchen).
The long, thin space, dominated by a central island, is strikingly similar to the Cartmel version. It even has the same textured grey wall, which apparently took some poor craftsman several attempts before he captured Rogan’s singular vision. I visited Aulis Cartmel last year, when a solitary chef was perfecting some kind of squid-ink cracker before serving them in the restaurant-proper.
Back in 2011, when Rogan ran the Roganic pop-up in Marylebone, he used to pack a suitcase full of ingredients and take them on the train from Cartmel. Now Roganic has a permanent restaurant, also in Marylebone, and L’Enclume is a four-times Good Food Guide restaurant of the year, so I imagine the operation has become a little more professional.
“Yeah, of course”, says Aulis London head chef Rafael Cagali. “Now it’s two suitcases.”
The night I ate, there were only four guests: my partner and I, and a couple of New Yorkers who had a better grasp of the London restaurant scene than any natives I’ve met. The action all takes place on the central island, with the set-up feeling less like a meal out than a dinner party, albeit with total strangers and better food.
When I was in L’Enclume, the 20-course tasting menu took five and a half hours to complete. This one took a mere three and a half, with 14 “dishes” ranging from tiny cones of crème fraiche topped with cubes of jellied damson, to a neat block of vivid pink lamb whose colour and texture was implausibly consistent throughout (the fat had been trimmed off, crisped, cut into squares and served with the underside still molten).
Aulis adheres to Rogan’s veg-first philosophy, with protein kept to a minimum. The stand out dish, in fact, was butternut squash with onion and thyme, only the squash was… congealed. No, that’s not quite right. I asked Cagali how he’d describe it.
“I’d call it a gnocchi emulsion, but Simon wouldn’t like that. He’d probably say it was a dumpling.” Apparently the process includes pureeing, juicing, adding some kind of starch, and then whispering a curse into a seashell during a full moon.
Every dish is a tiny work of art, often the kind of art that your nan wouldn’t get. Crispy balls of deeply fishy cod’s head, topped with a bright green blob of burnt chive, is served on a pile of bones. Cep brioche is fashioned into dainty little mushrooms sitting on a bed of moss. The attention to detail is incredible: a fat mussel, pocked with dill and caviar wasn’t perfectly aligned, so Cagali leaned over to shift it two millimetres to the left. Occasionally he’d offer advice on how things were supposed to be eaten, such as: “This one in three bites”.
Aulis is great. Brilliant. Heavenly. Is it worth £500 a couple? Sure, if you’ve got it. Even with prices this high, the margins must be tight, given you get two dedicated chefs and a prime Soho location.
But I don’t think Aulis is designed to make money. It exists to generate buzz for the Rogan empire, to let the people of London – and, evidently, New York – know that he’s back in the capital, and this time he’s doing things his way.