EATING OUT / Lessons from a professional: Rules

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The Independent Culture
I suppose the high point of the evening, dramatically, came when Catherine, the French waitress at Rules, asked Sir Terence Conran if he'd enjoyed the Welsh rarebit.

Welsh rarebit was not on the menu; he'd asked for it specially just to test their adaptability and he said he had not enjoyed it. He said it with all the charm in the world, having taken a great liking to Catherine and practically offered her a job at Quaglino's, one of his own restaurants, but he told her he thought the Welsh rarebit was 'flabby'.

The word floored her for a bit - she had only recently arrived in England - so she went to fetch a more senior member of the staff, an elegant Englishwoman, who agreed abso-lutely. It was definitely flabby; she was going to discuss it with the cook. A few seconds later she was back. The cook had tasted it and said it was not only flabby, it was abso-lutely disgusting. Everyone roared with laughter and Terence said he thought they'd handled it all extremely well.

My purpose in dragging Sir Terence into this column, apart from wanting to have dinner with an old friend and hero, was to try and learn a bit more about the craft. I was recently congratulated by a professional commentator on food, rather ironically I thought at the time, on my work in the 'new naive school of restaurant criticism', and such compliments have a way of rankling.

I suggested that we should go to Rules because, when we were young, it represented the old tradition, an establishment founded in 1798 and with Edwardian brass escutcheons outside offering game and wine and cigars - still there today, almost worn away with years of polishing. Terence remembered eating in Rules as a real treat in the Fifties Since then the Revolution, in which he played such a leading part, has swept through, leaving the old citadels of traditional English food like Rules and Simpson's in the Strand re-examining their laurels.

Rules has, since a recent change in ownership, been subtly tarted up. The old cartoons and sporting prints still hang thick on the walls, the red velvet curtains and banquettes are still there, but post-Edwardian displays of dried flowers have now been introduced - one huge oval mirror is entirely framed in them - and the old single-sheet menu is encased in laminated plastic. Terence was appalled by the cutlery - stainless steel semi- ornate mock Edwardian and, according to him, the cheapest available - and Catherine, the French waitress, punched our order into a little hand-held computer.

This meant that when the food came the waiter had to ask who was having what: old-fashioned waiters, my guest explained, make a little map on their notebooks and then go and punch the order into a computer somewhere more discreet.

He ordered a dry martini before we started. Both Vicky, his radiant companion, and I agreed after taking a sip that it was a bit warm and watery and we got down to laughing at the menu. It offers Feathered Game, Furred Game, Freshwater & Sea Fish, all set in a bold Edwardian typeface, flanked rather incongruously by references to Credit Cards, Pre-Theatre Specials and a reminder that Game is 'Free Range, Low in Fat'.

Terence ordered half a dozen oysters and jugged hare, Vicky asked for potted shrimps and steak and kidney pudding and I had an un-Edwardian starter of mango and avocado salad - this was dismissed by my guest as 'sounding like Food from Hell' - followed by teal from the Feathered Game list. The wine list is short and very reasonably priced and I ordered a bottle of Fleurie at pounds 15.85.

When I asked the great restaurateur to taste the sauce on the double fan of mango and avocado he said it was sunflower oil put in a mixer along with something out of a tin. The oysters got a lukewarm response, unlike the battered stainless steel platter they came in, whose design appalled him, and the potted shrimps were passed as all right.

We then had a mild argument about behaviour in restaurants, my guest taking a more liberal line on exuberance than I expected. He warmly recalled a night long ago at the Meridiana, in the Fulham Road, when some slob of a television presenter, enthralling two lady guests, had inadvertently splashed an Italian mafioso with bolognese sauce and the Italian had emptied a bowl of seafood in the presenter's crutch. Terence had just got to his feet to demonstrate what one of the presenter's ladies had done to the Italian with a butter dish when the main courses arrived.

Surprisingly, the jugged hare got a good notice: even the steak and kidney pudding was good, though not as good, Vicky said loyally, as the steak and kidney pudding at Terence's own Chop House on Butler's Wharf. My teal, which came with a parsnip and potato puree, was very good indeed. The only thing that really drove Terence mad was the redcurrant sauce. It came, he was convinced, out of some vast plastic drum.

Then Vicky very nobly had a crack at the toffee pudding, which she put somewhere in the upper beta class. I ordered an apple charlotte, which I thought in my naive way was fine, and Terence asked for his Welsh rarebit. I notice from the bill that we then had two glasses of port.

We certainly talked for a long time very happily about the old days and Terence's early endeavour with the Soup Kitchens in the Fifties and how it had been the gays who had got the food revolution going in the first place and we rolled out into the street full of good cheer to go and look at the worn old brass escutcheons. I asked what he'd thought of it. 'In theatrical terms? Great set, wonderful performances, shame about the play.'

His dinner and mine, with the drinks, came to pounds 74.60 plus the tip.

Rules 35 Maiden Lane, London WC2 7LB. Tel: 071-836 5314 Open noon to midnight Monday to Saturday, noon to 10.30pm Sundays. Average price for lunch and dinner, without wine, pounds 27. American Express, Visa, Access