Restaurant reviews: Lucinda O'Sullivan on Jamie's Italian, London
Just like Cheryl Cole, Jamie Oliver scuttled back from America, says Lucinda O'Sullivan, but his chain of restaurants seems to be hitting the right note with their air of neighbourhood casualness
Cheryl Cole is not the only one returning from the USA with a flea in her ear -- Jamie Oliver has also had his cough softened by the Yanks. But then, I guess it's something of a mammoth task for a Brit to land on the shores of the most powerful nation in the world and show them the error of their ways. Taking on the Americas has, historically, been a difficult gig for any performer and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution TV series attracted poor ratings and was moved to a different time slot by the ABC network.
Maybe if you want to ingratiate yourself with them, it's not the smartest idea to go in and tell them collectively where they are going wrong -- even if they do have massive problems with obesity. He has returned to the UK to focus on a new show called Jamie's Great Britain featuring popular dishes loved by the Brits.
Credit where credit is due, this guy has been a phenomenon since he was picked out for stardom at the River Cafe with his easy, cheeky-chappie, 'all around to my place on the scooter' manner. Now 35 years old, with an estimated fortune of £107m and some 20 or so restaurants around the world, he is a massive industry. He set about improving school dinners in the UK and also urged people to cook more at home. His last TV series of 30 Minute Meals was hugely successful, and the book of the series was the UK's fastest selling non-fiction title ever.
He now has a series of 'neighbourhood' Jamie's Italian restaurants from Cardiff to Sydney, Birmingham to Dubai, with five more on the verge of opening. Everything here involves a highly thought-out studied casualness carried out with military precision down to the tins of tomatoes plopped on the table to prop up antipasti platters.
They don't take bookings on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, or for under six people on other days, but they put it so nicely, saying, "we want you to visit us when it suits you" -- a tad difficult with no bookings -- "as our menu is designed around fresh, quality dishes that are quickly produced, we've decided to keep things simple. Rather than taking bookings, we suggest that you just come along and we'll find you a table as soon as we can." It was pretty jammers when we arrived at the flagship central London branch at Covent Garden on a Friday night, but with a bit of blagging we were allowed to sit at a communal table on the ground floor, rather than downstairs in the cellar, or wait for a half an hour.
It's all very pleasant and affable, lots of noise and buzz with the guys and girls waiting on tables having that born-again Jamie fervour, but with no crap taken either from our neighbouring diner who was whingeing about waiting for one of their main courses. The menu is typically modern-Italian casual with nibbles, antipasti, pasta, secondi and dolce. The equivalent here would be Dunne & Crescenzi, who do a fine job at so many venues. We ordered nibbles of mini chillies stuffed with tuna (£4.45), marinated sardines with garlic, parsley, lemon and chilli (£3.75), and a salami board (£4.45) of mildly truffled artisan salami. Eschewing prawn linguine; rich rabbit ragu pappardelle; lamb chops; scallop and squid ink et al, I opted for a special of plaice, emblazoned with capers, chilli, tomatoes, parsley and olives in white wine (£14.95). It was very light and tasty, as was Mary's half portion of asparagus risotto (£6.95). As a side, we also had braised fennel with anchovies and chillies (£3.75), which we both loved. We finished with Amalfi lemon curd (£4.95) scattered with toasted pistachios and a threesome of raspberries for Mary, and an affogato (£4.50) for me -- vanilla ice cream in an espresso coffee -- while Mary also had an espresso (£2).
With a bottle of fresh and herby Agricole Anselmi Pinot Grigio 2009 (£19.50), our bill with optional service came to £76.25 (€88.17).
Jamie's Italian, 11 Upper St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9FB.
Tel: (004420) 3326-6390
Sunday Indo Life Magazine