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London's oldest restaurant is thriving, says Jay Rayner. If you need proof, just take a look at Rules' new bar.
There are many things that contribute to a restaurant's success. History is rarely one of them. History, the notion of how things were once done and so should be done now, is a cruel jailer; the enemy of innovative ideas. So what to make of London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, on Maiden Lane, which first opened in 1798 and which is not only still open now, but thriving? Look: they have even just launched a special new bar menu. The remarkable thing about this is the word ‘bar’. Until relatively recently – everything is relative when you’ve been open for two centuries – they didn’t have a bar, or at least not one in which you would wish to linger. Then, a couple years back, they announced that they were closing two of their private room, the Charles Dickens and the Edward VII (so called because the King was said to have entertained his lover, Lillie Langtry, there).
To gain access you must ask the doorman outside to let you in, and he will then unlock the door and show you up the stairs (although there is a direct link to the dining room back on the ground floor). The signs for the old rooms are still there, but there is now one large space in red plush and dark mahogany with a real bar overseen by Brian Silva, a garrulous Bostonian who served for many years at the Connaught and who won’t mix you a traditional mojito. He has strong views on cocktails, does Brian, and they include not filling them with sugar. Hell offer you something else instead – a black mojito, perhaps, flavoured with fernet branca – and invariably it will be the best cocktail you have ever tasted. It will come with a hand-carved lump of ice the size of a Rubik’s cube, the better to slow its melting. If you’re not sure what you want he will probe your tastes, like a classic tailor trying to ascertain which suit might make you most comfortable.
And now it has that bar menu: oysters on the half shell, or Scotch quail egg with a soft oozing yolk, forest mushrooms on toast, game pie, or a plate of salmon smoked on the premises. It’s that sort of place. I was first taken to Rules as a ten-year-old, by my mother. I ate my first oysters there, and jugged hare with a sweetening ballast of redcurrant jelly. I remember the picture cluttered walls and the velvet banquettes and the whiff of something good and important in the air. Though it would be pushing it to claim I could compare how I ate as a child with how I eat now, I have gone back over the years and the food has always been good. Not just reliable, but sturdy, proper, big-fisted and reassuring.
Rules has been owned by just three families over the two centuries and the current custodian, John Mayhew, continues its traditions, not least through ownership of Lartington, the game estate in the high Pennines that supplies so much of the kitchens needs. Down in that basement kitchen they have their own butchery unit, complete with hanging cabinet, and people who know how to take down a whole side of animal to its relevant cuts.
And so to the food, which is the best kind of British, which is to say heavily influenced by French technique, much like the room. With its glazed ceiling and slightly worrying painting of Margaret Thatcher as Joan of Arc, it has something of the grand French brasserie about it. As does my starter, a heap of sautéed duck livers on toast, still soft and pink in the middle, with some vaguely overwhelmed girolles. A lobster salad is big on its advertised ingredient – which is not always the case – and curls of squid come with a fine, sticky stew of sweet peas and bacon. Elsewhere on the menu there are nods to both modernity and a Colonial British past: tandoori pheasant for example, or grilled monkfish cheeks with tiger prawns.
We steer away from these. Main courses are less about individual dishes than the partwork that arrives at the table: the serving dish of long-braised pork cheeks with black pudding, to be plated up as desired; a platter of sliced red deer – the same colour at its eye as the banquettes, with roasted beetroots and chanterelles – that is so gargantuan it is passed around the table and back again; the fully accessorised roast woodcock; here the dish of game jus, there the bread sauce, over there the parsnip crisps, underneath, the toast spread with its offal. I order the woodcock because so few places serve it these days and because it promises a traditional presentation. I am a little let down. Traditionally, woodcock –not back in season now until October – is served with its head bisected, the breast speared by two long needles of beak, so it stands proud like an honorary guard. It should be a moment of culinary Grand Guignol. Here the head is intact, but it is curled round shyly on its long neck as if trying to hide under the breast. No matter. It all tastes very good indeed, with that ripe, mineral end that comes from properly cooked game.
And suddenly I sound like an Evelyn Waugh character, which is what Rules does to you. The wine list flirts with the affordability of the New World, but in its upper reaches cleaves to France like a baby to its mother. Desserts are many steamed and spongy things. We all claim lack of space but still order a lemon meringue pie and it is magnificent thing, the whipped, toasted topping more pert than an augmented model on Hollywood Boulevard, the lemon filling powdered by the occasionally bitter punch of peel. We find the last corner of space it deserves and finish it with a mournful sigh. Not that we need mourn for long. Rules as been there for more than 200 years. It has never faltered. On present showing it will be there for many years to come.
I have mentioned before that my school was situated amid woodland and fields in Hertfordshire, at the point where the urban sprawl of London finally concedes defeat to the countryside. Well, while I was hiding in the woods to escape games sessions, my older brother, Adam, was in another part of the forest killing pheasants.
It would be pushing it to claim that my family was in financial straits and needed the protein to keep the skin on our bones, but that was my brother's hobby. He brought them home in his school bag to roast or make into bacon terrine. And all the time our sweet, trusting parents assumed he had simply found them in the woods already expired. Bless.
Not that my parents can disclaim all responsibility. Adam developed a taste for pheasant as a lad when he was taken to Rules, in London's Covent Garden. It is arguably the oldest restaurant in London - founded in 1798 - and a specialist in game, with its own estate in the High Pennines. That meal was burned on Adam's memory; they brought the roasted bird to the table, complete with game chips and vivid tail feathers tucked in behind. From such things is a (short) life of crime born.
We are now deep into the game season, and so, in celebration, Adam and I paid a return visit. For Rules, great longevity is a double-edged sword. Under only its third owner, John Mayhew, who bought it in 1984, it is still something of a Victorian multi-chambered snug - the blood-red walls cluttered with old portraits and prints, the banquettes plump, the linen crisp. The result is that, in some quarters, it is viewed as a tourist trap visited by Americans in search of an ersatz London authenticity. Sentimental fools, such as me and my brother, might hanker after the simpler approach we remember from our childhood, but there is a logic to the way things are being done here now.
In the old Rules, a starter of smoked haddock would probably have been a hunk of fish with toast and a poached egg. here, those two ingredients come in a warm salad along with potato and truffle. It was a fine piece of smoky, naturally coloured fish. Adam's Morecambe Bay potted brown shrimps with crab was a perfect example of prettification: the shrimp served as a tian beneath a lid of soured cream and bound about by a sliver of cucumber. It was cleverly done, but the crab lacked the sweet fishy kick you would expect from it.
From the 'feathered and furred' game list, we felt we had no alternative: it had to be the whole roast pheasant for two. It came with an apricot-and-herb stuffing, as well as wild mushrooms, truffle, Calvados, crispy bacon and Parmentier potatoes, all bound by a rich, French cream sauce. a serious dish. when I told my wife that it had defeated us, she said. "Christ, it must have been big".
The meat was deep and dense, though less gamey than it might have been - long hanging is not in vogue, as once it was. there was also no doubting how it had died: now and then we came across little flecks of shot that tinkled on the plate. (This was not something I was used to as a boy; my brother killed his pheasants with a sling shot or, sometimes his bare hands. Don't ask.)
As for pudding, the creme caramel and a raspberry syllabub trifle were both fine, and light, puddings, and thank Christ for that. we rolled out the door heavy with bird, and light of wallet, because by nobody's standards is Rules cheap. But what it does, it does exceptionally well.