Rules, London, 15/20

THOMAS Rule was committed to an asylum after murdering his wife and daughter, or so says Wikipedia, unusually, as an unattributed factoid. His oyster bar is first mentioned in 1798 and was taken over by his son or grandson Benjamin who married Hannah Green whose family came, propitiously, from the oyster estuary at Denge on the Blackwater in Essex. By 1828 he agreed a rent of £5/13s/9d. At the time Maiden Lane was a cut through from the market garden of Covent Garden to the abbey at Westminster and was haunt for all the traders, as it would be for notables such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray and later for the soon to be Edward VII who entertained his mistress Lily Langtry. Maiden Lane has its own history beyond its obvious links to the nearby theatres. Turner’s father’s babershop was a neighbour, the first offices of the nascent British Communist Party was here. And Europe’s first recording studio opened in 1898. All this weight of history is framed across the walls of the old building, as each generation since then has left its imprimatur in oils, graphics, cartoons, caricatures to the point that it is now so crowded there is hardly any room left for any generation X, Z or Y. 

Over the years it has been all things to all people from Downton Abbey – this is where Michael takes Edith to discuss the magazine; there is an appearance in James Bond’s Spectre. The poet John Betjman led a campaign to save the old building from developers but that has not stopped other brands moving in and hunkering around the old lady as if hoping to share its allure, although how many of the mob handed tourists that rejoice in the local retail is moot.

Rules was one of very few restaurants that stayed open through the Blitz circumventing strict rationing laws by its contacts with the country estates, hence the jugged hare, the game that still feature on the menu. Lunch was £5.

These days the oysters are no longer from Essex, but from Jersey and Rossmore. Roast beef is £45 a head, minimum two people, so £90. For wine there is a leaning towards the Rhone.

All of which perhaps puts it beyond criticism. And if you stay with the pies and the traditional puddings, it remains there. Plus the starters are mainly ingredient led icons like Devon smoked eel, Dorset crab, smoked salmon from Lodge on the Hebrides, all impeccably sourced.

The chicken and mushroom and leek pie is dainty in its little paper casing, and a crumble of apple and blackcurrants served, of course with a salver of English custard, are both superb echoes of another era.

Other shoves towards modernity are not so accomplished. Sops to fashions like sourdough instead of toast seem rather gauche both in conception and execution. The lauded grouse succumbed to a laissez faire bowing down to the laws of mass tourism and the potted shrimp are now just potted mousse. You are forewarned. Enjoy the history. Btw…the glorious old bar takes walk ins, if you have not booked weeks ahead.


Al Gambero, Porto Cesareo, Salento, Italy 16/20

IF you have a restaurant in a prime spot on the harbour, the nightly passeggiata is something of a two edged sword. It brings crowds, but it also locks out many people as the traffic jam encircles the inner city and parking spaces, like some medieval siege. Go for lunch, at least in August, time of the ferragusta.

Al Gambero is old school. The last update I can find on its Facebook page is 2015.  It is set near the old fishmongers who huddle these days surrounded by yachstville, coffeeville, buckets and spades, gelateria. ceramic etc. The centre is closed off, just for walking up and down. Al Gambero is for sitting down.

The menu is blue plastic printed, unchanging, except there is an ice tray of the day’s catch. The opening item is a raw fish starter, sashimi style, I might say, but actually it is also Salento bravura. We know our fish well enough to be doing this. This is not a kitchen that needs to be showing off. The room is full of old photographs of boats and patrons, a few wine bottles and a ceiling that looks like a ship’s gallery with wooden rafters, and a view on the marina, half closed today because, well we don’t want any distractions, thank you.

Let us demonstrate the point with this very old school antipasti – a plate to share of freshly breaded and fried squid, sitting on a thin slice of swordfish marinated in oil and lemon, a few prawns and cuttlefish rings scattered about, some rocket plus a gratin of mussels which is what grown up kitchens can do with mussels when the children are still doing moules frites.

The pasta with vongole is exemplary, but look at this specialty, what looks like a few tomatoes and mussels on pasta in the photograph is a mirage. The sauce is actually thinly cut squid, prawns, octopus clams, more swordfish, half the Ionian seabed mixed with tomatoes. A piscine Bolognese, you could say.

Local wine is from here. Right here. This is a wine region bordering the Ionian. The Apenine wine route they call it further east, known mostly to southern Italians, the Primitivo capital is Manduria, 30 minutes north. Everyone here knows exactly why they are here, staff and customers alike. And proud of it, a junction box that connects on the one side the ocean and on the other the people who live beside it.

The Italian solution, following the table next to us, is to order one of the starters each and to share them out, then a pasta, then a fish and something with cream and sponge that excited everyone greatly. Our bill for two was £40.

English speakers do not usually stray down here to Porto Cesareo, between Gallipoli and Taranto, which is a bit of a relief. Gambero is what I suspect many Italians would call a good restaurant. TripAdviser has it as the 53rd best restaurant in the port. Do not follow that advice. Number one is a hotel. Number two is a burger place. Number three is a mojito bar. Get with the programme, guys. It does not get much better than this. The pictures at least show the skill and brilliance of the pastas and vibrancy of all things fishy.

Caterina on FaceBook says: “Everything is very good. Fresh and tasty fish. Welcoming place and kind staff and attentive to customer’s needs. Highly recommended.”

Ristorante al Gambero , piazza Nazario Sauro n° 18, Porto Cesareo, Italy +39 0833 569123

Fisheye, Marathias, Corfu 15/20

AND so…Corfu has a decent restaurant, at last. Not in the north, the kensington by sea, where you might expect, but in the south, which you might deem more Dusseldorfia.

Take the road south on the west coast, almost to Lefkimmi, at the sign for Marathais keep taking the right hand slip roads until you reach the beach. There is a solitary red house on the hillside by way of a beacon. Below it, in among the dunes, like a Spanish chiringuito, is a white wood terrace that used to be Rick’s that used to be another cliche but now we have a chef. There is no phone, no web site, but Google maps has a few mentions of the new regime already and the season has barely started.

You might think it would be blindingly obvious that an island surrounded by fishing boats might have worked out that you can do more than grill the catch of the day. But here carpaccio is radical – not ceviche which would be a cure but closer to sashimi, thinly sliced with coriander, pepper and spring onion.

These sardines have been butterflied, boned, turned on themselves and then grilled with oil and lemon to the side:

And from the ice cabinet we have prawns and mackerel:

And anything that does not go the to the charcoal goes into one of two casseroles in cast iron, the one with white wine wine, garlic and potatoes, the other tomatioes and peppers…

And there are other things like excellent aubergine, a salad of split peas, sourdough bread…

And even even chips, because after all if there is one thing Corfu does well, it is chips. And other elements – the sandy beach, the calm sea, the headland that keeps out any afternoon winds, the local wine, and that increasingly hard pressed sense of hospitality are all extra pluses. Other venues, some of which I have written about here before, serve the tradional dishes well enough, but they are a bit of an old oompah band, but this kitchen has another tune…excellent little place.

Bull in the Alley, north Main Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma

WALK down this mews in downtown, or north main street, would you believe, you might spot the little bull sculpture over the green door. And you might think this is a tanners, a speakeasy, some kind of smelting yard or even a fashion shop. If you are here, you are supposed to know…The Bull is nothing if not discreet. Inside is black walls, dark, barring a few spots and chandeliers and a grand piano that has been converted into a bar. There are booths if you want even more anonymity. The web site does not offer any address or menu or anything at all, just a phone number.

It is a short menu. but we are here for one thing…the steak, listed as table steak at $115, in fact sold by the ounce depending what is in the kitchen. There is a ladies fillet for $52. We order a tomahawk on the bone weighing in at 48 ounches, enough for three. That is 1360 grams by Europeans standards. Served plain, as it is, off the grill:

The lighting does not do it justice, but for the record:

Albeit the dinner plate might give you an idea of proportions:

It comes with an array of vegetables that have already been prepared so everything pivots on how long to cook the steak…we opted for rare with the sweet fat barely cooked through (fine by me). You don’t get steak like this in Europe. This was Wisconsin, prairie grass raised, they do not defer to Chicago here, it is a Kansas strip, should you ask.

In the event I plan to go vegan, I will be passing here for a final steak.

Other elements are deep grained American hospitality like the gargantuan four tier chocolate cake and the creme caramel that comes on a soup plate. Plenty of cream in the chowder. Those vegetables at $10 a go – rare enough around here – are swift to is a mushrooms bourguignonne:

If you should be in the area…

Le Petit Sommelier, Montparnasse, Paris 15/20

ONE for you oenophiles. If you are in Montparnasse, one of those junction boxes that links much of southern Paris but otherwise its artistic legacy as a meeting place of inspired and penniless artists has given way to urban sprawl and oppression – the original name was mount parnassus after the Greek poets. Wine pilgrims come here.

The wine list is emphatic and even if your pockets are not deep enough for the Hermitage ’91 La Chapelle at 600 euros or even the four variations on Morgon in an encyclopaedia put together by Pierre Vila Palleja, formerly of Ritz, Lasserre, Crillon etc that runs to 750+ examples of the finest in French viticulture, there are wines of the day by the glass (upwards of 10 euros) which are typically convincing to the notion that the French keep the best things to themselves.

The dining rooms is in the railway car by the station tradition of the capital, well schooled by a team who know where are they are coming from. Many people seem to come for steaks (well curated meats) and chips but there are more interesting old school dishes which marry even better with the wines like the bouef bourguignonne marinated for 24 hours for around 20 euros. Plus a few modern touches like this marinated salmon with seasonal vegetables.

To finish, the cafe gourmand amounts to an espresso with a small glass of chocolate cream, another of rice pudding and a slice…a riposte against gentrification of latte culture, old school.

The Fox, Corscombe, Dorset, England 18/20

SO the heart and soul of what was the Ivy (and before that the Caprice) has morphed to the deep combes of north Dorset, a fair drive away from the tourist torrents by the coast, almost on the Somerset border, here where the accent is wider, my luuuvvveerrrrrleeee, on a crossroads to nowhere in particular.

Old Ivy hands will recognise the scoop of vanilla ice cream with a chocolate sauce that is not quite quite dark, bitter or milk but as old fashioned as the silver goblet in which it is served, the ice cream perhaps a shade superior from the local milk from Hollis Farm, a gentle crunch in there quietly hidden.

There are no TV gimmicks, no flunkey doorman, no multi-course set menu, it is a pub. Mark Hix does food, dinner, vittles. He has never worked in the Michelin territory of sauces, of water baths etc but as the reputations of his former venues and those that used to carry his own moniker in London before lockdown shut them down attest, his cooking carries the endorsement of many people paying their own money, a guiding respect for ingredients (among other things he was the first chef to champion sea buckthorn), the technical skill unshowy. Subtle simplicity. In American terms he is akin to Alice Waters. There is sausage and gravy on the menu.

So we have brill as a main dish. Not the over-fished, smaller and smaller Dover sole, nor its cousin the too fashionable turbot now going the same way, but brill which is in its own way probably more delicate, messier, finer you might say. Here the skin on, baked 10 minutes, served with butter, unfilleted, a garnish of sea beets. Vegetables of the day come in another old catering hotel goblet of parsnip, kale, turnip…potatoes are separate, new with parsley (another old catering trick) or chips, skinny as Macdonalds.

Cuisine you could say brought back to abstract, elemental, at its best, un-mucked about with. You might like think your grandmother cooked like this only she probably did not.

Another example that holds strongly to purpose but is more in the swank mode are the smoked anchovies criss crossed on the plate with grapes, crumbs and chilli – Dorset chilli which is to say not too much – and olive oil:

And there is a wry sense of humour at play here. So you can also have a bar snack of pork scratchings with apple sauce – served, a rare thing, hot, so crackling really

The elderflower is foraged as too the soup of the day of nettle and wild garlic, the excellent beer is from Palmers in Bridport, there is a wine from Portugal that Hix has been working on himself.

Beyond this being excellent food in modest surroundings, there is a political kickback here. We are not in the fakery of TV’s Masterchef, or the desperation of the Great British Menu, or the extreme hubris of tasting menus with wine pairings, just cooking as it should be, intelligently sourced ingredients and priced sensibly. This is what chefs should be doing. You have the option to book the chef’s table and eat with Mark at his home in Charmouth if you want the full chef-o-drama stage set, to discuss…

Noodle and Beer, the City, London 14/20

POSSIBLY this is the hottest place in town. Hot as in chilli, Sichuan chilli. Chongqing Xiaomian. My companion, my chief chilli-ometer, said very hot at two chilli denomination. There is a five grade rating for the beef which opens the dried noodle dish section and there is a four chilli denomination in the rice section.…the beer therefore is an essential. Do not say I did not warn you.

Bell Street is back of the city by Liverpool Street station on the Aldgate side. This is not the only Sichuan arrival, a few doors up, among the street stalls that become the fag end of Petticoat Lane on Sundays, is super inscrutable Chew Fun with China graphics for a menu but well populated by young Asians. More canteen like is XI’An  Biang Biang Noodles on Commercial Street which gets a lot of enthusiasm on TripAdviser.

Noodle With Beer has the best graphics. It would be a good venue for Succession. Bring the boss. Get him/her drunk. Ask for a pay rise.

The offending or alluring articles in question for us are Sichuan dumplings – beautiful silky dumplings filled with minced pork and lotus root, sitting on a powder keg of chilli and peanut sauce. More powerful perhaps are the innocent sweet white udon noodles until you discover this cobra hot red, secret sauce, underneath – pictured above.

However the braised beef and noodles with coriander in soup – based on an eight hour broth –  is impeccable and worth the visit alone. The rest is probably fantastic but I don’t do properly hot food, thank you all the same.

It is a shade more expensive than the competition at around £20 a head but still salaryman rather an expense account – NoodleandBeer.Com

Balzar, Paris 5th, 16/20

THERE is some salvation of having a slightly nutty name like Balzar, or at least for those of us who are having increasing difficulty with the tourists bombing well known restaurants. The great Balzar has only two reviews on Trip Adviser since lockdown. Hurrah.

The blog EatLikeAGirl tells me this is where Sartre and de Beauvoir had argumentative lunches, although the Paris authorities have given them a plaque down by Les Deux Magots – so we can all argue about that instead. Possibly as a result Les DM has a cordon currently thrown around it to direct the traffic of tourist and is really more hostage than host…like a lot of central Paris. it is all getting a bit too theme park.

The food writer Waverley Root praised Balzar some 60 years ago – actually it opened in 1886 more as a beer and choucroute caffe – but as John Whiting pointed out in 2001 if it was in any other city it might be the talk of the town. Its reputation tends to fall in and out of fashion.

What is really, really good about Balzar is the dining room, the super brilliant staff, the sense of history and a menu that knows its place well enough and, a point of issue these days, it is not overly pricey – before 7 there is a set menu at 22 euros, a daily dish of the day such a petit sale with lentils is less than that. Compared to London, or indeed a lot of other places in Paris these days, that is pretty good value. Post lockdown Balzar seems reassuringly again where to go.

Obviously, well obviously for Paris which likes a cliche, there are oysters, and foie gras but there is also also, less rarely found, quennelle de brochet sauce nantua and a curiosity with sweetbreads admittedly with morels and Dauphine potatoes at 39 euros nearly the same price as Dover sole which must be some kind of historical moment of parity. The web site also has some totally out of date photographs of how the cooking used to look.

La Maison du Jardin, Paris 6th, 16/20

THE said gardens of Luxembourg measure 56.8 acres, the two front rooms here are not 500 sq feet, say 30 seats, just a front room with one of those distinct brass rails stretching horizontally so a net curtain discreetly hides the patrons but leaves an upper glimpse of a warmly lit room. It is not really the House of the Gardens, it just happens to be a house off a street off the gardens, at the start of the long and snaking rue de Vaugirard (the longest street inside the Paris city walls). Discreet and modest, surrounded by no less than two boulangerie, three caffe that also have menus, an oriental traiteur, a proper croissement des croissants, all within 100 metres. On the next block is Philippe and Carole Tailleur’s awesome Bread and Roses.  Sometimes the best gastronomie is not the most obvious.

This maison is rated 300th best restaurant in Paris by Trip Adviser which is a pretty cool place to be – not so high up the list as to be spoiled by gastro tourists, and not so low down as to be with the run of the mill. It is a local, a Parisian local, on a small scale. Menus are short, 31 or 37 euros, cheaper at lunch, not in a style that might attract Michelin but more bourgeois, go back in time between those wars and you could imagine Julia Child cooking such things for Gertrude Stein. Homely, but accomplished, not dishes you want to embellish, or improve on.

Unannounced arrives a small casolette of wild mushroom soup, earthy, creamy, dirty like it is snuffled down in the roots of an old oak tree. And a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau on the house. It is that time of year. Old and new.

The first course is an old bistro trick, being the same thing done two different ways; one a mesculun green salad of mache and fine beans with shavings of foie gras. The other being the foie gras with its toast (from Poilane) and a garnish of mesculun leaves and fine beans. There is a smear of chutney to one side as if to say I could have done it this way, nouvelle cuisine or molecular style, but why bother? It is not what this dish is about. Which is what is good about this place in general, it is on message, it is Peugeot efficient, it is personable. Philippe Marquis has been here for a couple of decades. He has had time to adjust everything, so it is just so.

There is a bit of thing going on around the coeur de rumpsteak (origine France) which appears on other menus – it is a tough cut – here tombee – fallen on with mushrooms and spinach, a tomato, jus, and the chips are polenta.

Scallops are another two-in-one incarnation, this time all on one plate, a rich risotto of shellfish stock on which the scallops themselves become an opulent garnish with micro chopped chives and deep fried crisp shallots.

Lots of people on TA also mention the pastilla of lamb with braised lettuce.

And so, asks Gertrude, how will you finish this meal, Julia? With an ile flottante, with an almond tuile, more toasted almonds and a little cream. Does that suit? You really should write a book Julia.

In terms of scale this is not too different from say Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, as it was originally under Pierre Koffman, where dinner is now from £140 plus drinks. Here dinner was £35 each all in. Gertrude says: keeping things small and tight like here is the way to go, as Greta might say, everything else is just so much brouhaha, brouhaha…

Limnopoula, Petriti, Corfu, 15/20

PETRITI is the southern port where most of the fish is landed for the rest of Corfu. It is a cluster of smart coffee shops and grill tavernas. When the boats leave each evening, the tables and chairs come out and the quayside becomes an al fresco restaurant. If you had a villa nearby with a kitchen you could buy straight off the boats in the morning.

Limnopoula is in the middle of all this, a family concern set up more than 20 years ago with one half of the operation on a deck on the shore and the other inside. Here the stifado means octopus. They are robust in dealing with trippers, yachters, sailors, tourists, locals whoever. There is, as we used to say, no side to it.

Fish is the main deal – you can pick your own from the chill cabinet in front of the kitchen old school style – this is snapper, rather comfortingly served with old fashioned boiled potatoes, soft cooked beans and boiled courgette, but the skin so crisp it is a feature in itself.

All the catch is priced at a standard 50 euros per kilo which roughly translates as four portions. For shellfish they do a hefty pasta with squid, mussels and prawns.

Then of course we have the tarama and the more interesting fava bean puree with olives and red onions which marries well with sauteed courgette (if you are vegan).

Plus bread and local wine, and of course the view, about 35 euros.