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.