Through the written word, Rules Restaurant in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, makes an interesting impression: oysters, George III, porter, Dickens, steak and kidney pudding. Thackeray (though they call him William Makepeace Thackeray now), tripe and onions, the Prince-of-Wales-and-Lily-Langtry, vintage port….Well a strong impression. I am probably alone in thinking Teddy the most boring figure in our national life since Rules opened in 1798, not excepting his grandson Edward VIII, allegedly another habitue
The menu, too, reads well: English delicacies like whitebait and potted shrimps, red cabbage, boiled mutton and caper sauce, grouse, partridge and pheasant between stated dates, East End eels, mashed potatoes and peas, and if that “East End” sounds a bit of a false note, one must try to think that it will be a romantic note for visitors. Value free dishes like sea trout and escalope of veal are also on offer.
Spirits had fallen a little on arrival in a rather cramped and overheated place where there turned out to be only a 50-50 chance of getting a seat in the drinks-before-food area. In our case at least these drinks were well made and quickly served, but on my second visit the waiter tried- in vain, actually-to put me right on the orthodox recipe for the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Part at least of the reason for this venture was that, as further observation soon showed, some sort of quarrel was evidently going on amongst the staff. Well, no comment, except that in these matters slackness at the top is to be looked for.
On this occasion the move to the table brought further lowering of morale. The semi-circular banquette in a booth looked inviting but turned out to be too narrow from back to edge to accomodate a standard bottom in any comfort. How the heavyweight Americans across the aisle made out I cannot imagine. The technique had perhaps been borrowed from those hamburger joints where the disagreable seating is designed to get the customer out and away as soon as possible. Any such intention here would have been more than adequately fulfilled by the quality of the food. It must be said at once that the wine was outstanding value and impeccably stored and served. The coffee was excellent, though the Irish coffee was not hot enough. The veal escalope was perfectly adequate. The whitebait were fairly good but a bit soft. Everything else was disgraceful. I pass over a woolly tomato salad, tasteless asparagus, dull, chewy mushrooms and devils on horseback with disastrously underdone bacon. The venison, evoking thoughts of pemmican or biltong rather than a dish seriously offered a diner out, was as dry and void of flavour as anything I ever tried to swallow, but it is a notoriously difficult meat and it, too, I leave on one side in favour of an account of what Rules did to three traditional English dishes that it presumably prides itself on serving.
Sausages, onions and mash. (I have been known to prepare this myself and so was in a position to apply that valuable test: is the restaurant’s version at least as good as mine? Because if not…) Sausages, English sausages, are easy enough to cook but they need some attention to see that they are done all over. I fixed on one of the several supervisory-looking chaps who were standing about and directed him to see to this, and sure enough when they arrived an hour later the things were so raw the meat had to be dragged out of them with a fork. Unless care is taken, again, cooked onions tend to go to nothing and this lot certainly had. The mash was no good either-see below. And this with a dish the place prepares as a “special” every Monday lunch-time and evening of its life.
Tripe, onions and mash. Tripe, described by Katherine Whitehorn as boiled knitting, is more literally part of the stomach of the ox, a fact which the Rules treatment does nothing to help you forget. It has little flavour of its own and none was given or suggested on this occasion. Pieces the size of A4 envelopes came in a thick, over-buttered sauce instead of the milky mixture required by tradition. There might once have been onions present but none was apparent to my senses by the time the plate was set in front of me. As regards the mash-well, all I had better say is that if anyone can produce a more lifelike imitation of instant potato from real potatoes than I should like to hear from him.
Steak and Kidney pudding. This looked well enough when it arrived, though rather stiff and invulnerable. When the outside of this sort of pudding is pierced with a knife, gravy should gush out. Not this time, very much not, in fact the whole thing was forbiddingly, impossibly dry, the steak too dry to cut properly. There was too little kidney-but of course only home cooks ever put in enough. The taste, far from overwhelming, was hard to pin down. Like the smell of turkey Whiskas was the nearest my guest could get-unexpectedly toothsome, in fact. Failure here is the more reprehensible in view of the admirable pop-in-the-steamer portions supplied by Marks & Spencer. All main dishes sampled at Rules were served not much better than lukewarm on a plate with the chill barely taken off it and supported by undercooked vegetables.
There are cheaper eating-places than Rules where the atmosphere and service are so pleasant that they drive out other impressions. Far from the case here; but then I find it hard to imagine an establishment Elysian enough to dispel the memory of two of the most disgusting full-dress meals I have ever tried to eat in my life. They would have stood out even in-where? Wigan? Nizhni Novgorod? It seems that this hogwash counter was a few years ago narrowly saved from the bulldozer. Pity. Let us hope that before too long a decent doner kebab joint or Albanian takeaway may arise on its ruins.
Time Out. Page 63. COVENT GARDEN… Rules
“London’s Oldest Restaurant” offers a theme-park experience, and an increasingly dispiriting one. The tone was set when we were left to kick our heels in a holding lobby too small for all the would-be diners, and the evening ended with the off-hand waiter briskly clearing away our not-quite-empty wine glasses. In between there were some good dishes – such as hard-to-get-wrong Isle of Lewis smoked salmon with capers and soda bread, and a pretty, delicate raspberry blancmange with ‘candy floss’ (spun sugar) and macaroons – but they were outnumbered by lacklustre ones. Fish and chips was cutely presented, wrapped in a paper bucket made of pages from the FT, but the chips were soggy, the batter greasy and the haddock pretty tasteless. First impressions of steak and kidney pie with green beans were positive too, but both steak and kidneys were tough, the gravy too thin, and the pastry no better than you’d get on a shop-bought pie; what’s more the beans were stringy. Some solace can be found in the decent wine list and OTT decor (all mounted heads, framed prints and stained glass) but overall this is tourist food at tourist prices.
FROM RULES>>>Dear Reader.
The problem we have with this review in Time Out is that it seems to have been written by someone trying very hard to write like Kingsley Amis and therefore, in our view, not very original or informative. Kingsley Amis’s review, “Where Disaster Rules”, circa 1970 is far superior and well worth reading. By printing both reviews you can be the judge and jury.
From The Restaurant Magazine
It’s guidebook season, so chefs and restaurateurs everywhere are clamouring to get their mitts on their reviews. We were intrigued to see that within a matter of days of publication of Time Out’s latest London restaurant guide, a venerable London restaurant had posted its latest review on its website. It’s the only review up there, and its a stinker.