Jamie’s Italian, Norwich

What can you say about Jamie Oliver?  Unquestionably one of those love-or-loathe characters who is an adorable cheeky chappie or a nauseating self-publicist, depending on your perspective.  That he has become a successful entrepreneur and a brand in his own right, sold through TV programmes, books, restaurants, campaigns, food products in our supermarkets, and doubtless much more merchandising too – anywhere else he can show his face is undeniable.

However, as they say where I come from the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Jamie, who we first saw on our screens as a cheerful sous chef at the excellent River Cafe, makes a point of endorsing quality and fresh preparation of local ingredients, even for school dinners.  How is it possible to reconcile that ideal with the franchised chain management, though?  I’m not fond of chains for the compromises they wring in order to maximise profit and homogenise food.  Jamie’s Italian is part of a chain with a whizzy website, incredibly no fewer than 36 of them too – this is mass catering on a big scale, and given the common menu you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a factory somewhere behind the distribution network.

The fact that this is a highly commoditised venture is quite clear when you read the website and find that for each dish they can list the calorific content and allergenic ingredients.  While many will see the benefits of this approach I’d feel happier if it were less professional and more crafted from love and whatever ingredients happen to be freshest and most seasonal, and you would expect Jamie to feel the same.  Maybe he is compromising his own ideals in starting the sort of chain where ingredients are weighed out to the nanogramme, but then equally we have to account for the possibility that the Jamie public persona has been cultivated with care and does not represent his true feelings.  Maybe there are things he cares about more than fine quality ingredients?

The USP in favour of Jamie’s is not Jamie directly but that pasta is declared to be home made fresh each day and, presumably, other dishes too.  Charcuterie cut from the whole is also very welcome, though the whole experience is what we came to sample – in this case five of us, including my son and my sister and family, in honour of Adam’s successful GCSE results.

You have to say that if it’s all about location location location, then the genteel city of Norwich was a good choice, as was the very elegant art nouveau Royal Arcade, home also to the Colman’s mustard shop and museum.  To give the Jamie team credit, they have come up with a design sympathetic to the nouveau theme while also vaguely Italian in feel.  Doubtless there was a highly-paid interior design consultant along the way, but the feel is, if not authentic then certainly conducive to relaxed dining.  While we are not continuously assaulted and browbeaten with the Jamie brand, it’s never far away; while the store of Jamie books and merchandise might boost soaring profits but to my mind is out of place in an aspiring restaurant.

We arrived early for our booking, but in a restaurant housing 250 covers shortage of space mid-afternoon was never going to be a problem.  We had the choice of upstairs or down, but in view of my crutch support chose the latter.  Shame then about the loos being upstairs, which might be a serious issue for diners in wheelchairs, for example.  However, service was friendly and helpful throughout, with the young and female waiting staff giving a firm impression that they can resolve any issue with a click of their fingers.

The menu is not as up-market as that of the River Cafe, but then it doesn’t try to be.  Apart from the lack of pizzas (which disappointed my son, who was in the mood for pizza until I pointed out that not every Italian restaurant is a pizzeria or trattoria, any more than every English restaurant is a fish and chip shop), there is a fair amount of button-pressing among the dishes selected. From burger to tuna via belly pork, this is an up-to-the-minute exercise in fashionable dining.

At the very apogee of dining fashion is the plank, described also as “sharing platters” to enable you to nibble and graze while drinking and awaiting your starters.  In fact we chose one each of the meat/cheese and veg planks (which the staff stood on large cans of Italian tomatoes), plus artisan breads with oil and balsamic for dipping and a nice home-made tapenade.  Everything was nicely done, sparing in portions and decidedly bijou in the most expensive of ingredients (ie. parma ham and salami), but generally approved around the table.  The touch I liked best of all was the inclusion of a caperberry (singular, not the plural described on the menu), which are always addictive in their crunch and flavour but not commonly seen on menus around the UK.

Our mains included a variety of pastas.  Brother-in-law Bob went for a fairly standard prawn linguine, which he polished off in no time.  Vegetarian niece Maddie went for “honeycomb cannelloni trio” (chopped segments of filled pasta tubes with aubergine & sun-dried tomato, pumpkin and ricotta & spinach) and wolfed it down.  My son went for the penne carbonara, which tasted the part, though for his tastes the smokiness of the pancetta dominated to the exclusion of other flavours.  

Sister Sally plumped for soft shelled crabs, described thus:  “buttermilk-fried crab with chilli, fennel & sea lettuce salad, smashed avocado & yuzu lime salsa.”  To my way of thinking this is a dish chosen for its fashion content rather than Italian heritage, soft-shelled crab being a dish you would sometimes see on Asian menus. It reminded me of eating at Crabby Bill’s Surf Shack in Florida, where I had a pile of blue crabs to eat inelegantly, by which time my kids had long since departed.  Here, the soft-shelled variety were deep fried into neat portions and apparently tasted good without being remarkable.

Regular readers will know about my obsession with belly pork, so “Jamie’s Signature Italian Porchetta” had to be tried in spite of the indelicately applied Jamie brand to its name, though at £13.75 without accompaniments the price was a touch stiff for provincial chain dining.  Where most restaurant belly pork dishes are served as the base of a pyramid, this version consisted of a stuffed roulade, standing vertically in the centre of the plate amid a puddle of porky jus studded with small, crisp mushrooms.  Around the exterior of the pork was a beautifully executed crisp crackling, delivered without its fatty layer, a masterpiece of the art.  The herby stuffing, infused with a hint of garlic, also impressed, bringing back memories of eating porchetta at other locations, quite possibly in Italy too.  To my mind this was the highlight of dining at Jamie’s Italian, certainly recommended for pork-eaters.

“Funky chips” were ordered to accompany the dish were fairly minimal, under flavoured and lacking the crispness so evident in the crackling.  A rocket, parmesan and radicchio salad was coated in a snow of grated parmigiarno but was definitely under-dressed with the promised aged balsamic, to the point of being dry.

All in all, probably better than expected, certainly in the food and ambience stakes, but then at a notch higher in the pricing than most chains you would expect it to be.  Certainly room for improvement here, perhaps by treating its audience less as market segments and more as individuals.  More fresh-made specials selected by the chef, for example?

But would we return to a Jamie establishment?  Yes, I think so – however, the one thing they always ask in the marketing questionnaires is whether we would recommend it.  That’s entirely the wrong question to ask since it’s very much up to you to make up your own mind and not for me to make your mind up for you.  You may love the sound of the experience here, but then you may not.  Recommending is not the way to go!

Stop Press!  Jamie’s rose to 42 branches but is now being cut back to 36 once again.  See here.

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