Thursday, August 25, 2011

'Rules' Still Rules

Rules Restaurant, founded in 1798, is said to be London's oldest continuously operating eatery - it stayed open throughout the Blitz, if for only two hours a day - and as such, you would expect it to be Old School. That it is, gloriously, sumptuously, memorably.

Rules, as its Web site informs the prospective diner, specializes in "classic game-cookery, oysters, pies and puddings.'' In other words, classic British cooking, before mushy peas, beans on toast and corn flakes, and well before the cutting-edge fare of Modern British cuisine. You might therefore expect Rules to be stodgy, with leaden food. There, you would be wrong. Rules, as my wife and I rediscovered last week on our sixth or seventh visit to the restaurant, is correct but not stodgy, and serves food that is hearty and intensely flavorful but far from leaden. Unlike many a traditional favorite, riding on reputation, Rules is not tired.

It must be said that this venerable destination restaurant, located near Covent Garden, bang-on in the heart of central London, is not cheap, either. Indeed, our recent meal there was our splurge, and at 177 GBP ($288 USD) for two, all-inclusive, it was our most expensive meal in London. Rules adds a thoughtfully discretionary 12.5 percent service charge to your bill; you can amend the charge or remove it.

Dear reader, it was worth every farthing, every tuppence, every shilling and guinea and quid.

We started off with gin and tonics (Tanqueray), the attentive but never intrusive waiter pouring the gin at table, followed by a smidgeon of the tonic; that way, you can add more tonic or not for a stronger or milder drink. For starters, my wife tucked into a sublime rabbit and mushroom dish on toast, while I savored a rich grouse broth. We shared an enormous main course: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It could have served four people and couldn't have tasted better. A good portion of the bill (45 pounds) came courtesy of the bottle of robust red wine we chose to stand up to the beef, sourced from Rules's own country estate. Dessert? But of course; this was a shared pannacotta - airy-light, yummy, just right. On past visits, we have plunged into the signature sticky toffee pudding but we are weight-watchers these days, and thought that might be a dessert too far.

The main attraction of Rules is the food and drink, but the ambiance, infused with history and traditional touches, is part of the appeal, too. Antlers poke out the walls, there are stuffed pheasants here and there, there is gilt and plush and dark, polished wood. You can read the walls: caricatures, theatre bills, posters, photographs, old menus, you name it, covering virtually every inch of wall space.

To dine at Rules, then to take a London black cab to after-dinner entertainment or back to one's hotel - this, to me, is travel bliss.

Bottom line: Rules still rules.

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