I HAVE never written about Rules: John Mayhew, its proprietor, is a friend, and for entirely friendly reasons he has sought to protect my critical integrity by banning himself from these pages. But the other week one of those periodic flurries of colour-sup activity about the great British kitchen renaissance and the glories of game cookery came and went without giving Rules a single mention, and I knew I had to rebel – to please myself, not him.
It’s not that I resent Gary Rhodes of the Greenhouse, say, being congratulated on his faggots in gravy and sticky toffee pudding, but all are really parvenus in comprison with Rules, which has been serving up pinkly quivering sides of beef and richly oozing steak and kidney puds for well nigh a couple of centuries now. This need not mean anything about current standards of course – and there was a time, in the tail end of the last ownership when standards sagged – but take it from me, when it comes to English food, Rules has got it sussed. What it also has is one of the best maitre d’s in the business. Josie davidson, a bossy, cossetting Yorkshirewoman of robust charm.
And it is, quite simply, different from any other establishment. Let other eateries go minimalist, turn to two-tone tastefulness or resort to whatever the latest fashions dictate: Rules remains, comfortably, reassuringly, fitted out in all that red plush, those gilt-framed oils, burnished wood and crisp white napery; after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Diners (some of whom look as though they’ve been recruited from central casting, so perfect do they look with their old buffer air, their portwine cheeks and quivering jowls, as if they’ve already quaffed a pint of claret and relished a side of beef for breakfast) do not come for funny turns; they come for food. For gamebirds with bread sauce aromatic with cloves, roast beef, red deer, steamed treacle sponge and bread and butter pudding.
I am addicted to the grouse here, which unlike almost everywhere else, is hardly ever overcooked; if ‘hardly ever’ seems like faint praise, it’s not meant to be, but perfection is not something to be blithely guaranteed under any conditions. I veered from my normal wintry course and had the teal last time I was in, the flesh of this little bird so delicate oft, I could understand why it is thought of rather as the lobster of gamebirds. Still, eating this tiny little thing does feel a bit like the massacre of the innocent. Before it, I tried, as a starter, the smoked grouse with chutney and, really, the taste of the little kidney shaped slices of this browny-red meat is so beguilingly pungent, the chutney only detracts. You need nothing but this meat at all- the only accompaniment I might ever think of adding would be a few just-warm slices of jerusalem artichoke. The steak and kidney pie that was being eaten opposite me was devoured so quickly that even I had hardly time to prong a greedy fork into its thickly gravied centre. I take this to be an endorsement of it.
I do have a few quibbles: the vegetables that come with are those nouvelle-cuisiney mixtures, the baby sweetcorn with mangetouts and the like, and it strikes an inappropriate note. What’s needed is mash and peas, spinach and braised cabbage. Also, I am not overkeen on diced vegetables in the centre of the yorkshire puds; these things are too good to be messed round with; Rules should stay clear of gimmickry. And I’d love to see the jugged hare, liver and bacon and Dover sole back on the menu, and what about some oxtail and sausages and mash?
The wine list is short, to the point and attractively priced. The house red (1988 Sandeman Claret) is a reasonable £7.85 a bottle, a Fleurie (Domaine Fontabon ’89) is £16.50 and at £28, the Pommard 1er cru, while still an extravagence, is considerably less than you’d find elsewhere.
The pudding menu has its frustrations: warming though the litany of ‘sherry trifle’, winter fruits soup, bread and butter pudding, treacle sponge and custard, apple hat suet pudding and hot syrup cream’ is, it is hell to have to choose, to decide which to miss out. In the end, we made what felt like the right decision, the treacle sponge and appley suet pudding, and there were no regrets. A three-course dinner for two with house wine will come to about £60.
The Spectator 5 October 1991