If Le Café Anglais proved to be the perfect option for whiling away a lazy late summer Sunday afternoon, it’s hard to think of a better way of spending an early autumn evening than the dinner I had with some other blogging types at Rules a few days later. The common theme for the meals was a main course, but there the similarities ended. In fact they ended some time before that because even there the approach differed markedly, but more of that anon...
Like many people I suspect, I used to think “London’s oldest restaurant” would be a gimmicky tourist trap with little to offer the discerning diner. I mean it’s in Covent Garden for a start, generally considered a gastronomic no-go-zone (Great Queen Street excepted). And the liveried flunkies out the front posing for pictures with Japanese holidaymakers don't help (actually they're very helpful, but you get my drift). Indeed the first time I went there I had chosen it precisely because it was a tourist destination: I was arranging a meeting between a visiting American client and a potentially taciturn IT journalist so I figured at least we’d have something to talk about if the geek-talk dried up. But that time, and every time I’ve been since, it’s been clear that Rules has lasted for over two centuries not because it’s a tourist trap but because it turns out the highest quality traditional British dishes using the highest quality ingredients. In short, they know what they’re doing.
They know what they're doing, too, with their recruitment policy. When, last year I think, they decided they could afford to sacrifice two or three of their upstairs room to open a cocktail bar they looked no further than Brian Silva to run it. Silva is a mixology heavyweight who parted company with the Connaught at the same time as Angela Hartnett and jumped at the chance of setting up a new cocktail bar in Rules's fine old rooms. Alerted to his presence by the Dos Hermanos, I'd been to the cocktail bar before, thoroughly enjoying both the cocktails themselves and the offer of free stilton, but this was the first time in ages I was planning to eat there too and I was looking forward to indulging in a full Rules experience. We were not to be disappointed.
Chris, who later professed this the best dinner he'd had in donkey's years, was already seated at the bar when I arrived, furnished with a golden negroni, a variation on the classic that (I think) involved Poire William. It certainly included a slice of fresh pear. Who was I to argue?
Like all the cocktails we had that evening, the Negronis were a pleasure to drink, less a mixture of their frankly lethal ingredients and more a subtle ensemble that gave hints of the base spirits and flavourings without letting any one of them dominate. Chris's next cocktail was a case in point. For reasons that escape me now it was called The Edge, and had among its components Southern Comfort, lavender essence and horseradish. It's the sort of combination that would have the Masterchef boys reaching for their well-oiled collection of one-liners ("There's NO place for lavender and horseradish in the same drink!") but in Silva's expert hands it worked brilliantly.
Anyway, a couple more cocktail creations from the great man while the rest of the party assembled and it was time to descend into the restaurant proper for dinner. The main dining rooms at Rules are fabulous: portraits, caricatures, stuffed animals and other assorted geegaws all over the wall in an unselfconscious celebration of the place's longevity; beautifully laid tables including some for two where you sit next to each other, which is a surprisingly companionable experience; and, as befitting the most English of English restaurants, a waiting staff almost exclusively French. Quite right too.
I started off with half a dozen slippery oysters (no natives on the menu yet but we were only ten days into the season) which hit the spot beautifully. I particularly liked the touch of a wee bottle of vinegar infused with peppers and such, as well as the usual accompaniments. Elsewhere on the table were potted shrimps (fab), potted rabbit (I didn't taste) and something else. More shrimps I think.
The main even – for three of us at least – was grouse. And boy do they do it well at Rules. While Rowley Leigh's version was subtle and refined, perhaps fitting for a venue where ladies undoubtedly lunch, Rules (where gents do) favours a gutsy celebration of this noble bird. The grouse itself spoke of 20-odd decades of experience roasting meat: a deep, golden brown on the outside and an orgy of pink and claret within. Fabulous countryside smells (helped, no doubt, by the highland heather poking out of its bum) were more than matched by the intense taste. The table groaned with both compliments and accompaniments: crispy bacon, more bacon with cabbage, game chips, livers on toast (apparently they're from ducks rather than the grouse themselves, which are roasted more or less in tact so adventurous types like us can dig around for the good bits inside), bread sauce, Madeira sauce... Quite possibly some more sauces too. It was a fantastic feast. Many bones were chewed.
"The best picked grouse I've ever seen," said the waiter. Praise indeed.
After all that we forwent puddings, settled the bill (£80-odd well spent including our pre-prandials and a couple of bottles from the lower end of the list) and took ourselves upstairs for some more of Brian's hospitality. Cue plates of Colsten Bassett, glasses of chilled Pedro Ximenes, and several more cocktails for the road.
A fine night indeed. I can't fault Chris's judgment: one of the best dinners I've had in ages. So while foodies all over London salivate over a restaurant that will be open for just ten days, those who get turned away from Selfrifges could do a lot worse than hopping on a number 15 to The Strand, ambling up to Maiden Lane and dining instead at one that's been delighting Londoners and tourists alike for over 77,000 days and nights. And counting.