Thursday, 10 September 2009

Rules, Covent Garden



Looking back now, to those bleak, monochrome days before I ate the Rules grouse, I suppose I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I had high hopes, of course, mainly thanks to Simon Majumdar and his giddy tour of the kitchens a few weeks back, and was also looking forward to trying the cocktails in the (still relatively new) Rules Bar upstairs. But it seemed like an odd venue - I was worried that, sitting on the reputation as London's Oldest Restaurant and therefore able to suck in enough heritage-starved American tourists and blousy Old Boys to keep the profits ticking over through good times and bad, that Rules didn't actually need to be any good at all. And, it goes without saying, very few of the places that don't need to be good actually, well, are. I was worried it would be staid, overpriced, stuffy, stifling and stressful. In the end, it was none of those things, and in fact turned out to the most wonderful evening I've enjoyed in a very long time.


Events began in the dark-panelled, carpeted luxury of the upstairs bar, and with the creation of a drink called the Golden Negroni. Like all good cocktails, there was that balance of familiar comforting flavours and just a hint of the mysterious. Apparently lurking in it somewhere was a touch of Poire William. It was remarkably easy to drink. While waiting for various members of our party to arrive, I was invited to sit at the bar itself and watch the mixing of my next order up close. Called the Edge, it contained fresh grated horseradish and tasted of cosy evenings in front of a log fire. Perhaps not very seasonal, but delicious nonetheless.


After an hour or so of blissful contentment which passed as if it was five minutes, it was time to move downstairs and take our seats for dinner. With its high ceilings and walls covered in memorabilia and paraphernalia, Rules feels every one of its 211 years old. How nice, though, to be in a restaurant that has gathered its mementos and photographs honestly and gradually over many years, instead of buying them all at once in a bid to invent an illustrious past like so many gastropubs. This is a place with real history, and a confidence in its own reputation as a London dining destination. And we were about to find out why.


My starter was Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, one of my favourite comfort foods at the best of times, but here, thanks to Rules' use of lobster butter to bind the sweet crustaceans together, it took on a new, luxurious identity. I will admit that my knowledge of potted shrimp was previously limited to the little plastic pots you can buy at foodie markets, but even so, these were lovely. And although my dish came on the back of a recommendation from His Maj, the standards of the other starters on our table were equally high - in particularly a gorgeous dressed crab with a perfectly balanced brown meat mix.


And then the grouse. It will give you an idea of how very reasonable the prices are in this restaurant when I tell you that this labour-intensive, hand caught game bird was at only £27.50 the most expensive item on the Rules menu last night. But in this blogger's humble opinion, the experience it delivered was close to priceless. Served with crispy bacon, some duck liver paté on toast and the traditional game chips, the only slightly unusual element was a few sprigs of highland heather protruding from the back of the bird. And yet almost before the first bite of the gorgeously pink, moist meat had reached my lips, I knew this was going to be something special. The smell - oh, lordy, the smell - it was of open countryside, highland moors and healthy living. It was an aroma that did more than simply get the taste buds going, it assaulted my emotions directly, whisking me back to childhood trips to Cumbria and of long walks on hot summer's days. And it was no less affecting in the mouth - to call the flavour "gamey" is to not even touch the surface of how extraordinarily, wonderfully powerful the flavour of this little bird was - a deep, rich flavour like no other animal I've ever tasted. I ate in stunned, intense silence, methodically pulling every bit of the carcass apart and savouring every last morsel of offal from inside and out. Later in the evening I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror; I had grouse blood splattered down the front of my white shirt and looked like Sweeney Todd after a particularly busy day. I was so overwhelmed I hadn't even noticed at the time.


After dinner, we moved back upstairs once again and allowed Brian Silva, the head barman, to gently bring us down from our game-fuelled high with a plate of Colton Basset stilton and Pedro Ximines dessert sherry. We chatted happily across the bar and drank wonderful cocktails until we were the last people in the room. It was a magical evening, one of those nights where every element of every bite and slurp brings joy and each moment slides blissfully into the next. But it was the grouse that was the star of an evening not short of highlights. That I recommend Rules as a restaurant should by now be obvious - you absolutely, positively have to go, and soon, before the season is over. It's just too good to miss.




9/10

Rules on Urbanspoon

18 comments:

Helen said...

Gutted I missed it? MUCH?! Argh! It looks amazing. I still haven't eaten a grouse yet this year. A disgrace. Lobster butter - nice! Pickled onions too. You know I feel about those pickles. Mmmm pickles.

Ben said...

Nice review, Chris. Was a great evening. Thanks for organising.

eatmynels said...

Cheese in another room, now thats proper dining.

Andrew Webb said...

You sure it was duck pate? it should have been made with the liver and bits of the grouse itself

Chris said...

Andrew: According to Simon, it's duck, yes.

Heather said...

Oi, nothing wrong with a little highland heather every now and then ;-)

Thanks for the great writeup, Rules has been on my list for some time and now it's at the top - will try next time I'm in the Smoke!

Neil said...

My question then - is what would you have to have experienced to give a place a 10?

Cos it sure read like a 10 and I'm very envious.

Hermano 2 said...

I am delighted you enjoyed. Rules has always been one of my favourite restaurants in London, even when it went through a moribund stage in the 1990's.

It has had a lot of refurbishment and with Richard Sawyer in the kitchen now has one of the best "old school" chefs in London.

From my day there, I know that there is no compromise in the ingredients used and the same is true in the set up and management of the bar. Brian Silva is, IMHO, one of the best mixers in London and his back bar is the most interesting, particularly his onw collection of vermouths.

I have already spent far too much time there and I intend to continue that practice

Simon

Lizzie said...

D'ya know, I think I've been here for one of my parents' birthdays. I can't remember much about it though so perhaps it wasn't.

I MUST have grouse this year. MUST.

Nishitata said...

Loved this post. Definitely made me want to go back to Rules. Haven't been there in ages. Cheese looked most inviting!

ginandcrumpets said...

You make me want to go there. Right now.

Chris said...

Neil: I was tempted, but I wanted to leave a bit of room for a little place in Catalonia I'm visiting next week...

Heather: Didn't say there was :) Just I believe it's rather unusual.

Simon: Thanks for the rec, as ever. It's a real gem.

Lizzie: Yes, you must.

Nishitata: Colton Basset is a bit of an "everywhere" cheese these days but it was perfect for the occasion.

ginandcrumpets: That's the idea :)

mathildescuisine said...

Strangely enought, right before you posted your blog, Tim and I decided to have a drink at Rules.. After having read your post, I decided to enjoy dinner over there as well. They managed to get us a table at 10.30pm and we were the last one to leave the restaurant. I felt like I was back in Paris in the 50's, in a old traditional bistrot. Such a great experience.
And yes, the grouse is to die for!

Caz said...

I want to go there right now!

Patrick said...

Nice review Chris. I had already added it to my list after Simon's glowing recommendations and I think this review has pushed it up a bit higher.

Looking forward to your Catalonia review. Hope it's been worth the wait!

Browners said...

Splendid stuff. Particularly enjoyed the Sweeney Todd reference. Rules couldn't now be a lot higher up on my list.

The Greasy Spoon said...

Funnily enough, I've just had my stag night at Rules- a private party in the Graham Greene Room. I want to like Rules, or at least the idea of Rules, but I can't honestly- hand on heart- say that I came away that much impressed.

The food was good enough, I suppose. Service was all right. The Graham Greene Room had a certain charm- in a Tunbridge Wells tea-rooms, smelly carpet circa 1954 sort of way, even if that meant the strong whiff of disinfectant coming from the kitchens towards the end of the evening.

And it was expensive- jaw droppingly expensive, and I can think of so many other fabulous restaurants we could have gone to for half the price.

Chris said...

The Greasy Spoon: Thanks for the comment. Because I enjoyed the evening SO much I keep wondering whether I just got caught in the euphoria of the moment and perhaps I was exaggerating slightly. But the more I think about it, I'm sure I wasn't - it really WAS that good. And I'm extremely surprised you thought it was expensive. At £10.50 a top-class cocktail and on average £10 starter and £20 main course, Rules can almost be considered a bargain for this standard of food and service. I certainly can't think of anywhere else that's better value in this price range.