This is spooky. Jamie Oliver launches the first in a planned nationwide group of high street restaurants, and there's hardly any publicity about it. No TV series following the ups and downs of the recruitment process. No press release, no tie-in range at Sainsbury's, no poster campaign featuring a thumbs-aloft Jamie grinning, "I'm absolutely doolally about neighbourhood restaurants ..."
He's just quietly got on with it. Jamie's Italian, financed entirely by Oliver and his business partner, opened at the beginning of the month in Oxford, the first of a planned 20-strong group that will soon include branches in Bath, Kingston and Cambridge. It's the first restaurant Oliver can call his own; Fifteen and its offshoots are owned by a charitable foundation. So the stakes are high; he's putting Brand Jamie to its first serious commercial test, with millions riding on the venture's success.
The sites are being cannily chosen; mainly university towns that lack good mid-market dining options. On the menu, the kind of user-friendly Italian food popularised by Jamie's books and TV series, made with decent ingredients and served at affordable prices.
Tellingly, the site chosen for the Oxford restaurant isn't in some trendy, studenty area but a busy high street, where young folk pour in and out of chain restaurants. In this company, Jamie's Italian looks pretty sophisticated. The windows of the corner site, formerly the Cock and Camel pub, are heaped with sacks of rice; whole San Daniele hams swing from hooks. And on the first Sunday evening after opening, a queue of would-be diners snakes out of the door, braving the 45-minute wait for tables (the restaurant operates a no-bookings policy for parties smaller than eight).
I took a group of Oxford-based friends who have had their noses pressed against the windows for weeks, praying that they'll finally get somewhere decent to eat in the city centre. Though Jamie's Italian is a mass-market brand, serious money has obviously been spent on fitting out this prototype. There are two casual dining rooms upstairs, both with a funkily industrial, reclaimed look, as though Jamie's faux-mates from the TV ads might come skidding in to refuel at any moment. The feel is modern and urban, despite the rustic tendencies of the menu, and downstairs, there's a moodier room whose graffitied brick walls positively cry out "you are too old to be here".
Waiting for our table at the thronged bar, we learnt that thanks to an unexpectedly busy first week, they'd run out of pinot grigio. The kitchen, too, was feeling the heat; chicken salad was off because there was no chicken left – maybe because half a free-range Devonshire Red bird, boned, marinated and chargrilled, costs an extremely reasonable £12.
In fact the prices are incredibly competitive, with antipasti costing from £2.50 to £6.50, and mains from £9 to £16. Jamie's idiolect is all over the lengthy menu; from the "top Italian breads" and "lush basil pesto" to the "good old grilled steak" and "loadsa herbs", about which Jamie is so famously doolally.
We went slightly doolally ourselves, beguiled by all the Jamie-speak, and the food largely lived up to the lovely-jubbly descriptions. We particularly liked the crisp fried squid (net caught by day boats off the South Coast) and crunchy "chips" of fried polenta, scattered with rosemary and sea salt. Two generous antipasti platters – one featuring a selection of decent cured meats, the other marinated vegetables and superior baby mozzarella – typified the non-purist approach, with the addition of a dollop of chilli jam to a wedge of pecorino on carta da musica (or "snappy music bread").
Pastas are all made on the premises, and truffle tagliatelle was a silky, luxurious treat, with shavings of preserved black truffle, butter and nutmeg contributing most to the flavour, rather than the expected truffle oil. A second pasta dish of ravioli caramelle – sweetie-shaped pasta parcels filled with ricotta and pumpkin – was made with a heavier touch.
Jamie's gift for whetting the appetite seems momentarily to have deserted him in the case of "chargrilled catherine wheel sausage". It was much better than its name; a plump coil of fennel seed-scented Italian sausage baked with polenta in an earthenware dish, just like mamma used to make. Beef carpaccio came on huge oval platters, with a feistily dressed rocket and radicchio salad, a steal at £9.25. Even more so, a grilled rump steak made with British beef, dry aged for 21 days on the bone, a fantastic deal at £13.75.
We didn't have time for puddings, but we'd seen enough; my Oxford friends were down on their knees in gratitude. This is a great little operation; far better than it probably needs to be to roll out as a successful brand. And the bill for six of us, including a glass of wine each from the all-Italian list, came to £140.
Jamie Oliver's friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo has been in the kitchen over the opening period, and it's possible standards might slip once he moves on to the next launch. But the young staff generate such enthusiasm and excitement, and there's such a buzz about the place, that it's hard to imagine it going too wrong. At the centre of Jamie's Italian, there's a real passion for the food and food rituals of Italy, and that's a testament to Jamie Oliver and his lifelong love affair with the country. Not only has he put his money where his mouth is, he has obviously put his heart there too. Tracey MacLeod was voted restaurant critic of the year at the Guild of Food Writers Awards
Jamie’s Italian, 24-26 George Street, Oxford (01865 838383)
Around £25 per head, with wine
By Madeleine Lim
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