Rules has been trading since 1798, making it comfortably London’s longest lived restaurant (though Casa Botin in Madrid, which has been going since 1725, wins the title in Europe). Rules has featured in several novels over the years, and retains its traditional charm. The restaurant is set out over three floors, and they claim to serve 180,000 diners per year. Despite the scale of the place it appears quite intimate, with the dining area split into lots of manageable sections. There is a thick red carpet, red banquettes, a high ceiling on the ground floor with lamps and well-directed ceiling spot lights providing excellent light to each table while still having a cosy feel. The walls are crammed with framed prints of sketches and cartoons, some of famous customers over the centuries. The menu is unashamedly British, but the restaurant specialises in game; it even owns its own estate (Lartington Hall Park) in the High Pennines, where many of the animals on the menu met their fate.
The wine list was fairly short, just a page on the back of the menu plus a few “fine wine” extras; mark-ups seem kinder the higher you go. Examples are Klein Contantia Chardonnay 2008 at £36.50 for a wine you can buy for around £8 or so, Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie 2005 at £75 compared to a retail price of around £32; at the high end Margaux Pavillon Rouge 2002 was £155 for a wine that costs around £86 in the shops.
Notes from my most recent meal now follow.
There was an extensive menu of traditional British dishes. Starters range from £7 to £16, main courses £18 to £32.50, vegetables at £4 and desserts mostly £7.50. My starter of salad of Portland crab had plenty of crab, with a few wild leaves. Although it seems odd to suggest there was too much (expensive) crab relative to (cheap) salad leaves, I think that more leaves and their dressing would have balanced the dish a little better (2/10). My wife ’s smoked salmon was fine but of course involved limited kitchen involvement.
Highland roe deer was served with ceps and curly kale. The meat was nicely cooked, the curly kale pleasant, though the ceps were surprisingly flavourless (4/10 given the nice venison). Chips on the side appeared to be double rather than triple cooked, so were never going to be perfect, but were tolerably crisp (2/10). Poached cod with mash, cockles and parsley sauce was properly cooked and the mash had reasonable texture, though the parsley here was quite a strong flavour to match with the cod (2/10).
Apple and blackberry crumble appeared to be assembled in separate elements rather than having the crumble cooked with the fruit. This is doubtless quicker for the kitchen but had the effect of tasting like some stewed fruit with a layer of rather dry crumble laid on top; this was still pleasant, and had excellent custard, but would taste better if cooked all together (2/10, but more for the custard). Service was acceptable, though topping up was rather erratic. Overall the cooking was for me between 2/10 and 3/10. Ingredients are good, though given the prices this is only as it should be.
The notes below are from a meal in October 2009.
A foie gras terrine with rillette of wild duck (£14.95) featured a coarsely textured but well-seasoned duck rillette, and a smooth and full-flavoured terrine with a couple of slices of orange to provide some acidity; the only criticism was that the “toast” was more bread than toast (sloppy), but the components that mattered were fine (3/10). Dressed Cornish crab with lemon mayonnaise (£13.50) is a tricky dish to score, but it was very nicely prepared and the mayonnaise gave a pleasing bite of acidity (3/10).
The pheasant pie was unavailable so I tried a roe deer loin with spinach and ruby plums (£23.95). This had spinach that was a little overcooked, and a plum sauce that was too acidic, but the deer itself had great flavour and was nicely cooked (4/10). Haddock and chips (£17.95) was cooked properly though the batter was a little soggy, served with carefully made mushy peas with a hint of mint; chips were a little larger than I like but were crisp enough (2/10). Apple and blackberry crumble was a little drier than ideal, but was served with genuinely excellent custard (3/10, but higher for the custard). Bread and butter pudding was a little heavy but pleasant (2/10). Service was quite efficient and pleasant. Overall, this was a very enjoyable, and quintessentially British, experience (other than our waiter tonight, but then British waiters are an endangered species these days). Prices are a little high but the produce is of good quality. May the restaurant last another two centuries.