A day visit from the parents can only mean one thing; food. Whether this comes in the form of a mighty long trip around Sainsburys to ‘stock up’ or an afternoon in a restaurant (not a curry house or Scream pub) with an option of three courses, a student’s adoration for free food is universal.
Knowing that my Dad and brother are suckers for Italian food, I suggested Jamie’s Italian – the new mega restaurant that I had heard so much about but had yet to indulge. I knew that they didn’t take bookings so when we turned up around 2pm and there was a 45 minute wait for a table, I wasn’t surprised. The host at the door seemed stressed and frazzled, but was nice enough to suggest we continue to browse the shops and return when our pager vibrated; this would mean that our table was ready. Thirty minutes and a Selfridges browse later, we returned to Jamie’s Italian and bought drinks at the bar before squeezing into a spot in the Entrance waiting for our table. I suppose this wasn’t ideal and I admit I was a little worried that my father wouldn’t be very patient to wait amongst the hustle and bustle of people, waiters and push-chairs but it was ok, our pager vibrated and we were on our way to a table. A lady host (much more smiley than the first one) led us through the vast number of tables, chatting away about how we had chosen the best day to come to the restaurant as, apparently, ‘the specials today are superb!’
Sitting down at our table gave me the first chance to actually take in my surroundings. The restaurant seems manic as soon as you enter; its a mixture of a strong ‘homecooking’ smell, seemingly hundreds of shirt-and-aproned waiting staff, fire from the open-plan kitchen and tables upon tables of people – not forgetting those waiting in the Entrance for their pagers to buzz. But this is what Jamie wanted the restaurant to be; fun, engaging and accessible, a place where people can come together, enjoy eachother’s company and share great Italian food. Jamie’s understanding of the country is clear from the setting. The space is large and open-planned with lines of tables and booths very much on top of each other, aligning with his vision of a place where people can ‘come together’ and spend time over their meal, much like the Italians do. The atmosphere was constantly loud and once seated, you really did feel surrounded by people (this feeling reinforced when your food arrived and surrounding heads peered around to see what you’d got). The decor was fitting to its namesake. No frills, no fancies, just a minimal and even industrial feel. I described it to my dad as the inside of warehouse. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘a warehouse without the ware’…
The lights existed of bulbs hanging from the ceiling with pottery shades. The tables were mostly aluminium-esque and the floors very, very wooden. It wasn’t luxurious and it wasn’t exactly comfortable (I felt a little bit claustrophobic scrunched up against the booth behind us) but it was certainly honest, unpretentious and allowed the food to speak for itself. It was also interesting, and a refreshing change to be in somewhere so different, where recognisable music was played instead of panpipes. Although it seemed that it was effortless, there had certainly been a lot of effort put into the design of this restaurant, the design that would make the 200 or so diners feel like no effort had been made at all. We were, of course, sitting in a commercial wonderland where Jamie’s name added as many pounds as letters onto the dishes and his face plastered the walls through rows and rows of his books.
The rusticity and authenticity shone through the presentation of the dishes. Our ‘Top Italian Bread Selection’ encompassed focaccia, sourdough and crisp breads arriving in a small tin pot; our lamb ravioli starters in a pottery-style dish. The food was faultless and the lamb ravioli was my favourite part of the meal. Served with a tomato, chilli and herb dressing, it came fresh from the Specials Board for a reason and would have made an excellent main dish as well. The £7 price tag is a lot for a starter but it was very special. Dining with two fussy-eaters is hard so I was pleased that both were able to find something on the menu that pleased them amongst all of the chilli, squid ink and rabbit! Both my Dad and brother opted for the ‘Jamie’s Italian Spaghetti Bolognese’ – well let’s see if the master can make an Italian classic shall we? Both plates were left empty at the end of the meal, the ragu of beef, pork and herbs was complimented greatly with the parmesan; simple but delicious which I think is key to an enjoyable dining experience, especially at lunch time.
Feeling a bit rushed for time, I went for the ‘Beautiful Bucatini Carbonara’, again a seemingly ordinary Italian dish, but one which you would agree is necessary to master if you are attempting to do like the Italians do. Although not as hot as I might have liked, I couldn’t complain and enjoyed trying the new ‘tubular spaghetti’ which was thick and a great alternative to usual spaghetti. All of the pasta in Jamie’s Italian is made fresh daily which is definitely telling, and justifies the £10-13 price tag for what would otherwise be a standard, pasta dish. The carbonara was delicious, not too creamy (which was perfect for me) and a generous amount of crispy fried smoked pancetta, which you can’t always rely on. It was nicely seasoned with thyme and Parmesan cheese, but there was too much pepper, a taste which got a little laborious towards the end of the dish causing someone who NEVER leaves food to… leave some. Thought and flavour had been put into the menu and notable dishes include the Prawn Linguine with garlic prawns and chilli and the Monachelle Puttanesca with capers, anchovies and olives. Unsuitable for a casual lunch, but ideal for an evening meal, the ‘Mains’ selection was varied with different meats, poultry, fish and salads, priced from £11 to £17. The flavours did look delicious and I believe best prove Jamie’s Italian ambition; his menu certainly showcases him as the Italian chef, Gennaro Contaldo’s protégé and recognises him as innovative and creative.
After the initial encounter with the frazzled host at the beginning, and the barman explaining himself that he would rather come to the restaurant on a weekday to avoid this busy-ness, the staff were undeniably attentive and polite. Our waitress read us the Specials, was happy to comment and recommend dishes and filled our water-jug without needing to be asked. She was obviously rushed off of her feet, noticeable only for the slightly flustered sense you got from her, but as we sank into this ‘Italian way’ – as influenced by Jamie’s ideal for his restaurant – we didn’t really notice time. Our plates were cleared promptly and smoothly (no awkward balancing acts of dropping of cutlery) and amongst hundreds of other diners, she ensured that we didn’t feel forgotten.
The dessert menu continued the Italian theme, with icecream and sorbet galore, tiramisu and pannacotta. Although the icecream selections did look like a dessert you would expect from the kid’s menu at a BeefEater… The chocolate, raspberry and amaretto brownie that I had was enjoyable but it was disappointing that the waitress said the chefs were unable to offer the dessert without amaretto (which I had asked for) but when the dessert did arrive, it became clear that the amaretto biscuits (which were simply sprinkled on top) could have been removed. The tiramisu was also disappointing to the world’s most experienced Tiramisu Taster and Dad did not enjoy the addition of orange mascarpone meaning that we came away feeling that the desserts were a waste of time and didn’t satisfy, as had been hoped.
Jamie’s Italian is definitely ambitious and I believe that Jamie Oliver’s hard work has paid off. His restaurant is a clear success, proven by the queue out of the door and extensive wait for a table. But beyond that, his ambition and true adoration for Italy shines through both his menu and his restaurant. Although I did feel a little bit like I was buying into a brand (which I suppose I essentially was), considering Jamie’s very British roots, his food seemed effortlessly Italian and his flavours and the vast options available added a rustic nature to this ‘brand’ and image. The dining experience was an enjoyable one, with attentive and polite staff and delicious food served in good time. What I didn’t enjoy was the initial agitated and busy environment that I was first met by. However, I look forward to returning and relaxing into many more a Jamie’s Italian afternoon.