He’s not the first chef to do it and certainly won’t be the last, so I am definitely not going to hold Jamie Oliver’s addition of his own name to a chain of restaurants against him. In my view, while independents are absolutely vital to a thriving food scene, chains also have their place. They’re a bit of easy-access consistency where otherwise you might be playing Russian roulette when it comes to the quality of your next meal.
Having said that, not all chains do consistency well and some may be consistent – but consistently bad. So it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that somewhere will be great just because it’s part of a successful group of restaurants or because it’s got a famous chef’s name on it.
The Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham is slap bang in the middle of the Bullring, with a lovely view out over St Martin’s Church through full length glass windows, or from a cute little seating area that my friend and I would have loved to enjoy if it had just been a few degrees warmer.
Inside it’s spacious and airy, with ceiling that seem to stretch up miles into the sky and an industrial but fun feel that seems to fit with the Jamie Oliver we all know and love. Even the toilets had a fab slightly wacky feel to them, with flushes that sit right in the middle of the cistern rather than at the side (I know, you need to see them to know what I mean, but the picture – which I made my friend take – didn’t come out too well).
We went on a Monday lunchtime during the school Easter holidays so, unsurprisingly, it was pretty rammed. But we got ourselves a nice little seat at the window and sat down to peruse not one, but two menus. There’s the normal lunch choice, but also a new ‘Super Lunch’ menu that’s available from 12-6pm Monday to Friday and gives you the chance to have two courses for £11.95 or three for £13.95.
Sometimes I’m slightly put off with what can be limited choice with set lunch menus but I’m happy to say this one had a few dishes I was more than up for trying, so we plumped for the Super Lunch. But not before we’d tried some of the so-called ‘World’s Best Olives’ that came on ice and with a lovely piquant tapenade and some crunchy flatbread. I’ve never actually had olives chilled like that, and I’m not quite sure they’d be my first choice but it was a nice little tastebud tickler to get us ready for our meal.
To start, I opted for fritto misto – carefully described in the menu as ‘crispy fried sustainable fish & squid’, coated in a light batter and served up with garlic and lemon aioli. It was good – the fish was tender, the coating ever so light and crispy and the lemon in the aioli added a refreshing hint to the rich mayonnaise.
My friend Sarah chose the truffle tagliatelle – another menu entry with the careful addition of a simple word designed to remind you that this isn’t just mass-produced chain food, but Jamie Oliver’s food. Hence it’s not just pasta but ‘handmade’ pasta. I’m not sure all of us would actually know the difference, but Mr Oliver is obviously keen for us to see this as quality food.
The pasta was served simply in a black truffle butter with aged Parmesan, nutmeg and topped with shaved black truffle. It reminded me of the simple dishes you get in Italy, both in appearance and in flavour. If you’re a fan of truffle, which I am, it was great. But if you’re not too sure about the earthy taste of this jewel of the food world, then you might find it a bit much.
Since she’d had pasta for starter, Sarah decided to go for the ‘JI Caesar salad’ for main. A pretty plate of romaine, red chicory, ciabatta croutons, shaved cauliflower and red onion with a garlicky yoghurt dressing, veggie Parmesan, toasted hazelnuts, chervil and sweet basil.
It certainly looked tempting – all bright spring colours, an array of textures from fresh crispy lettuce and red onion to crunchy hazelnuts. And from Sarah’s report the flavours mimicked the appearance, making it a simple yet tasty (and virtuous) main.
In a slightly unprecedented move for me, I opted for a veggie main course – the Wild Garlic spaghetti. I only really learned about wild garlic this year and now I am noticing it everywhere! The dish sounded tempting – spaghetti tossed through a ‘Genovese style’ combination of wild garlic pesto, green beans and new potatoes, finished with extra virgin olive oil.
I think when it comes to impressive-looking dishes, mine won on the day. A glorious mound of spaghetti piled up on top of potatoes and green beans, with a generous heap of parmesan on top. Like Sarah’s, it was a great spring-like dish in both look and taste. The wild garlic brought a slightly different taste to the pesto, while the beans and potatoes were made slightly more indulgent thanks to the silky coating of olive oil.
My only reservation about this dish – and I had this even when I saw it written on the menu – is the presence of double carbs. I’m probably being a bit OCD about it and maybe that comes from years of trying to balance my diet and not over-indulge, but I find the idea of a pasta dish having potatoes in it a bit strange.
Of course, it tasted fab, but for me it just didn’t sit right and I could quite happily have done without the addition of potatoes to what was already a great pasta dish.
We hadn’t planned to have dessert but since we were having such a ball, we decided to go for it. Sarah chose the ‘Epic Brownie’ – a piece of simple moist brownie pimped up to the max by chocolate sauce, salted caramel ice cream and a tower of caramelised popcorn. Sweet, sickly, full of calories, and impressive on the plate. Ticks all the boxes, right?
I opted for the ‘Wobbly panna cotta’, mainly to have something different but also to carry out the age-old test of the ‘wobble’ factor. It passed with flying colours – just the right balance of creamy and wobbly, without being too gelatinous.
It was a good-looking dish too, doused in a seasonal fruit compote, fresh mint and what were cryptically referred to as ‘smash ups’ – basically biscuit crumbs that added a clever bit of crunch to an otherwise unchallenging dish in terms of texture.
We washed our three courses at Jamie’s Italian down with a couple of glasses of wine each, and here would be my only criticism or, let’s say, observation. At £13.95 for three courses, the food itself was great value. What we hadn’t thought to check was the price of our large glasses of wine – it turns out mine was an impressive £9-odd per large glass, while Sarah’s were £7 each. And we had two!
I’ve worked in pubs, bars and restaurants before – I get that wine can be expensive by the glass. And to be fair, the prices are there on the menu so there was nothing hidden about it – we just hadn’t bothered looking. But I do sometimes think that if you know your wine list is quite pricey, especially by the glass, and two people order a large glass each (two thirds of a bottle), it might be worth mentioning to them that drinking by the glass can be expensive and if they’re planning on having more it might be worth considering a bottle. Just a thought?
Having said that, the service we received at Jamie’s Italian was great – friendly, fun, informative and all-round marvellous. And yes, we did the usual thing of spying on nearby tables to check that they were getting the same level of service, just in case it was a blogger thing. Turns out we needn’t have bothered, since the waiter came over at the end to voice his concern that he had had no idea we were there for a blog and nobody had told him. I’d have it that way every time to be honest!
We left feeling definitely very full, in good spirits and ready for a bit of a mooch around Birmingham before our train back to Rugby. Not only was Jamie’s Italian a good place for a couple of girlfriends to have a natter, some nice food and a glass of vino (or perhaps the bottle next time) but Sarah had spotted that it’s really family-friendly too, with cute little lunchboxes or mini sliders on offer for kids.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect of Jamie’s Italian – I thought it might be a bit of hype with a famous chef’s name on it. But inside, it didn’t actually feel pretentious at all, but very Jamie Oliver-esque. Casual, fun, honest food with a bit of a grin.
I was invited to try the menu at Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham. The meal was complimentary in exchange for an honest opinion.
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