It doesn’t seem that long ago that Strada closed its doors and soon after Jamie’s Italian announced that it was going to open in its place. In those five months, the Jamie’s Italian fans I know and love, whipped themselves up in to a frenzy at the fact that Mr Oliver had said he was opening another shining beacon of Italian-ness in Exeter. And given the opportunity to sample this new establishment, I couldn’t resist see what all the fuss was about.
Started in Oxford in 2008 (click the link to read Matthew Norman’s review) it has grown from the one restaurant to incorporate restaurants all over Great Britain and also internationally. There is Jamie’s Italians in Sydney, Dublin, Hong Kong and even Portsmouth. Most of them seem to be in London and the middle bit of the map, but now they can add Exeter on to the rostrum of locations of this expanding enterprise.
You might remember a while back I rather sceptically wrote the following post when I found out that Jamie Oliver was destined to open in Princesshay. I asked him to impress me. Whether or not he ever reads every single piece of Internet that mentions his name is unknown and unlikely. But I had this phrase in my head as we sat down at our table on a busy Friday evening, ready to be impressed.
Scanning across the menu it was clearly obvious that compared to ASK, Zizzi and Bella Italia…well lets say there is no comparison. The menu has been developed to represent authentic, rustic Italian cuisine with a Jamie Oliver twist. The ‘Bread and Nibbles’ has, for instance, Crispy Music Bread (with slices of pecorino Sardo & little dots of chilli jam mostarda) and Pork Scratchings (with spiced fennel salt & orchard dipping sauce) which could be classed as Jamie Oliver with an Italian twist. The ‘Bruschetta and Antipasta’ returns to its Italian side with such things as Tuscan Style Chicken Liver Bruschetta (smooth Italian paté with pancetta, vin santo & Parmesan) and Sicilian Caponata Bruschetta (spiced aubergine, hard ricotta & pine nuts).
This variation between ‘proper Italian’ and ‘Jamie Oliver Italian’ continues throughout the menu. Take ‘The Mains’ section which has The Jamie’s Italian Burger (Juicy prime British beef with mortadella, balsamic onions, tomato, melted smoked mozzarella, pickles & chillies) which is accompanied throughout with such Italian dishes as Osso Buco (free-range pork, slow-cooked with saffron, onion, tomatoes & Trebbiano white wine, served with Sicilian-style orange gremolata) and Lobster Al Forno (Half a marinated & roasted lobster with silky Parmesan sauce & spaghetti pomodoro). There is clearly a great deal of originality in the way the menu has been created.
Flip over the double sided A3 and you have the reams of Cocktails, Wines and…well…everything else. The prices as you might expect from a restaurant in the location that it is, doing the thing that it is doing, are levelled at ‘Special Night Out’ or ‘I have money and can’t be bothered to cook’ level. Take your wife out here if you wish to apologise for something, take a first date if you want a memory to remember. It is not cheap, but not any more expensive in comparison to its neighbours (Cafe Rouge, Coal etc.).
The kitchen is open enough for diners to see what’s happening. I loved this touch in the restaurant design which gave a certain element of theatre to the dinner. A corner of the restaurant is taken up by the pasta machine which makes fresh pasta daily and a small selection of Jamie Oliver merch. There is a deli during the day as well for JO fans who might want the real thing.
We decided to share a starter of Pork Scratchings, given this was the first time I had ever seen this as an option on a menu, I couldn’t deny myself some fatty protein. Being a complete Burger-head I had to go for The Jamie’s Italian Burger (10.95 or bundled with chips for for an extra £3) with Polenta Chips, and my able assistant chose the special of the day which was a pasta dish with lamb and tomato in a red wine sauce.
The starter came reasonably quickly given the fact it was so busy. The delicate flavours really came out, and it was seasoned perfectly. The Roasted Pear and Tomato dip had a gentle kick to it but subtle enough for it to work with the seasoning of the scratchings and not cause any mouth related spice-burn.
The scratchings were cooked evenly and presented in a bronze goblet which, to me, was the perfect method of delivery. Starter finished, we languished ourselves in conversation. We waited about 20 minutes for our main course (pretty good for a busy Friday night!) through which the drama of a busy kitchen played out in front of us.
To say that the burger heaved in to view was an understatement. The table next to us had ordered a burger as well and got it slightly before us, I think I stared a little too long for comfort.
A stacked skyscraper of meat, pickles, chilli and cheese made this one of my all-time burgers. Add in the Polenta Chips which were beautifully cooked and topped with lashings of parmasan and rosemary, you had a most amazing meal; one that I will come back again for when I feel I need it in my life.
Although it required disassembling, it was a burger to be attacked. As Jamie Oliver said himself to Ellie Goulding in the second episode of his latest series the best burgers are ones that you just need to attack. This I did. It was an enjoyable combination of a burger that was at least 9oz, pickles and chilli’s with Mortadella and mozzarella which I devoured far too quickly. The result was burger impatience disorder that I could only fill with more burgers, but tonight was not the night that I was going to do this.
My able assistant found her Lamb and Tomato thing quite spicy, this being a special it wasn’t something that was mentioned when the waitress told us what the specials were at the beginning of the meal. There was no pretext saying that this was going to be ‘spicy’. Luckily we are both spice fans but I know many people who would have been calling the manager over asking for a replacement or a refund. Was it meant to be spicy? Was there meant to be a warning? Who knows.
With the meal finished, we were too full for dessert. I had been tempted with such delights as Amalfi Lemon Meringue Cheesecake (velvety mascarpone & lemon cheesecake topped with Italian meringue, served with lemon curd & blackcurrants) and the Epic Brownie (warm fudgy brownie with vanilla ice cream & caramelised popcorn). But there really was no room at the inn.
Jamie’s Italian is a new and original take on something Britain does quite poorly sometimes. Italian restaurants are pretty much everywhere in various disguises, the ‘pseudo-Italian’ label is one that we can stick on many restaurants on our high street. For once, there is now a place that I can say “fancy Italian tonight? Go to Jamie’s Italian…”. It celebrates the fact it is what it is, and gives the diner a menu that is…
“…rooted in authenticity. We’re all about fantastic, rustic dishes created using tried and tested recipes. Jamie’s friend and mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, has added substance to what is now the essence of Jamie’s Italian – tradition combined with current, innovative ideas and a Jamie twist.”
Its not pretentious, its not snobby. Like many establishments you make it as expensive as you make it.
Jamie’s Italian, Exeter
20 Bedford Street