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The Times Magazine Eating Out
by Jonathan Meades
In the days when Covent Garden sold vegetables rather than sold to vegetables there were two grand restaurants on its southern periphery which was then known, generically, as the Strand. Those days passed with the passing of the market but the grand old restaurants lived on....Rules still is in Covent Garden. It still is a stronghold of ancient Englishness-which, gastronomically, is not really the smartest thing to be. I hate to bang on about Gary Rhodes and Philip Vickery, Kit Chapman's former and current proteges at the Castle in Taunton, but they are the only cooks capable of raising English cooking above the level of a worthy also-ran.
If I was Mr Rule I'd get in Chapman as consultant toot sweet. But I'm not Mr Rule and it is evident from eavesdropping his punters, that they believe he's got it right: Italians, Austrians, Spaniards come here and revere the John Bullishness of it all. And they have a point. It is uncorrected, mostly. Its appeal is to the partipris of grimnes: iffy oysters followed by a really rather horrible steak, kidney and oyster pudding. The former were just mean. The pudding was misconceived. The suet crust was thin as a sheet of filo and grey; the filling tasted like something from a heat-your-own pack - overcooked, industrial, vaguely chemical. One oyster was semi-detached to the crust, another sat on its shell on the side of the plate. It conforms to an alien, not-in-the-know conception of London as a city where no one is able or even wants to eat well, where "il y a toujours de la brume dans les jardins de Kensington". It's no more than going to Paris and finding the streets full of mecs in berets singing Milord - happens round every corner.
Rules occupies wonderful rooms. It's like a DIY version of the Soane Museum (which is high praise). There is no surface which is not filled by something interesting: a Spy cartoon, a Trog caricature, an ormolu god, an alabaster bust, a petit-point of a port, a Neapolitan narrative, a monochrome photo, a chiming clock, mostly things in frames. There is a roof lantern of glass stained with bows and masks and lyres.
It boasts of being the oldest restaurant in London. It is certainly amongst the best looking and it is a congenial, if expensive, place to spend a couple of hours in. The staff are polished and some seem to have been chosen for their Hogarthian looks. They punch orders into electronic pads which they wear like holsters- this high intrusion is welcome, laminated menu cards aren't. Nor is the facetious listing of "wines from the former colonies" such as Aquitaine and North America.
When the chef is not trying to be ur-Brit he shows that he can cook: open quail pie is really a giant vol-au-vent filled with good meat and richly sauced. Among the first courses a black-pudding tart with poached egg was commendable. A smoked haddock souffle wasn't - it was unpleasantly dry. Savouries are always welcome, but the Welsh rarebit needs more care taken over it than shown here.
EATING OUT..Jonathan Meades suggests beating the hordes to the steak and kidney pudding
Not long to go. Only a few weeks and we will be seeing the irst tourists of the season. They always deliver an impression of occupying a parallel London that exists only for visitors, a London of such obviousness and transparency that Londoners fail to see it.
The restaurant on their standard itinerary is Rules which is, I suppose, meant to represent some sort of immutable Englishness - lobster-faced pinstripes gorging on roast beef, the great and good stitching up bottles of ancient claret as they conjure intrigues. The walls are covered with framed cartoons from Gilroy and Rowlandson through Spy to Vicky and Low. The decore is otherwise predominantly late Victorian - ebonized wood, alabaster busts in niches, cream paint. All this might easily add up to some sort of museum, to something quite as remote from non-tourist London as Traitor's Gate. But whatever it may have done in the recent past Rules is not now resting on its laurels. While no one is going to claim that the English possess one of the great kitchens of the world, the food here is at least done with care. Well, most of it is. There are not that many things you can do to smoked eel to mess it up; someone here did one of them which is to freeze it. Less effort might also be made with the cabbage - boiling it for 20 minutes instead of five minutes doesn't make it four times as good.
But against this there is top notch Steak and Kidney pudding - crisp suet crust; good beef, chuck or skirt, infused with the flavour of the kidneys; and a gargantuan amount. Also: Brill in a cream sauce which shows that the place is not burdened by an exclusively trad repertoire of dishes. The savouries include Welsh Rarebit done with Red Leicester and bacon wrapped round Oysters