Anyone who knows me will know that I have a fairly extensive list of people and things that fall into the category of ‘pet hates’. Rather than bore you with a lengthy rant about them all, I’ll keep it relevant, and tell you that two of them are chain restaurants and Jamie Oliver – so you would be forgiven for questioning what on earth I was doing sitting outside Jamie’s Italian in Cardiff with a glass of wine and a menu at lunch time on my birthday!
To be fair to Jamie and his restaurant, I had been fairly keen to give it a try for some time, but had always been completely put off by the fact that there always seemed to be a queue out of the door. There are very, very few places that I would even entertain the idea of queuing for, and an Italian chain, albeit one with the name of a celebrity chef on it who has probably only spent slightly more time there than I have, is certainly not amongst them. But it was a Monday lunch time, the sun was shining (Jamie’s benefits from being one of the few places in the city that retains a sunny aspect on its outdoor terrace long past midday) and there was a relative lack of queue, so we decided to give it a go. Incidentally, I believe that the customary queue outside originally came about from the fact that Jamie’s didn’t take bookings, but on consulting the website it seems that they now do, for parties of any size, although it states that they are still primarily a ‘walk in’ venue.
We sat outside to have a drink – sadly there wasn’t any food service available outside, but there was about a 20 minute wait for tables, so they gave us a ‘bleeper’, a couple of menus and a some wine, and we were happy. My first observation on the menu was that pretty much everything seemed to contain chilli – that’s probably a slight exaggeration, but of the ten or so pasta dishes on offer, more than 50% featured chilli as a main ingredient. To be fair, though, when Mr W went inside to ask if we could put our table back for a bit so as to enjoy the sunshine for longer (we could!), I tweeted my observation about the chilli and someone from Jamie’s Cardiff almost immediately tweeted me back to advise that I could order something and ask for it to be made without chilli, so well done to them on that – I am a great fan of companies that use social media as it should be used, in real time, and to really engage with their customers.
Another observation on the menu was that I really like what they have done in trying to bring things that are a bit ‘different’ to the masses (who are inevitably going to be the audience for this type of venue) – squid ink pasta and rabbit ragu would certainly not be obvious choices in most chains, so I was impressed by this.
To start, we decided to share an antipasti ‘plank’ – these could be ordered per person, but we just went for one portion. I think the way it’s been constructed is designed to avoid people sharing, as most of the things on there were very small pieces, and not really enough to share, unless it’s with someone you know quite well (half an olive, anyone?) but for us it was just right, and it did at least mean we got to try lots of different flavours, including pistachio mortadella and buffalo mozzarella with chilli (again) and mint, fennel salami and – my personal favourite – pecorino cheese with chilli (ahem) jam. Once we’d ordered our plank, we were a little bit baffled by a couple of tins of tomatoes that were then placed on our table. It became apparent that these were to balance the plank on. A nice touch, but a little bit of an unnecessary gimmick (although perhaps less so on a larger table where space is at more of a premium). It also made it almost obligatory to eat with your fingers, as using any kind of cutlery could have made the precarious plank topple off its tomatoey perch!
For main course, I was initially intrigued by the mini meatball carbonara, but the description on the menu didn’t really bear any resemblance to a carbonara at all, and when I asked our waitress for more information, she confirmed this and said it was very lemony and not one to go for if you didn’t like a lot of lemon with your food, so I decided not to risk it as I wasn’t convinced by lemon and pasta together.
Instead, I went for a prawn linguine, which came with shaved fennel, rocket, chilli and tomatoes. I asked for it without the chilli, as although I don’t mind a bit of a bite, I don’t like an overpoweringly spicy flavour and didn’t want to risk ruining my meal. The dish was good: lots of juicy prawns, and a surprisingly good flavour combination with the fennel, but the tomato sauce was a bit watery and certainly not very rich and tomatoey in flavour, which was a bit disappointing. Admittedly, the chilli might have beefed up the taste, but I would have still liked more of a richness in the tomato sauce – and I’d really struggled to choose something that appealed to me and didn’t have chilli in it!
Mr W went for the wild rabbit tagliolini, which was described as a slow cooked ragu of rabbit with mascarpone and amalfi lemon, garlic and herbs. As I suspect would have been the case with the carbonara, when the dish arrived it didn’t look like much of a ragu, but this wasn’t a problem as it tasted really good. I probably preferred it to my main course, and I know Mr W really enjoyed it, so I might go for this option if we ate at Jamie’s again.
As well as pasta options, there is also a nice range of risottos, fish and meat dishes – again, not the usual suspects that you’d expect to appear on a chain menu. We shared some ‘posh chips’ – chunky chips with a drizzle of truffle oil and a sprinkle of parmesan. These were very good indeed.
We had a quick look at the dessert menu, which featured some nice takes on some Italian classics (lemon tart, tiramisu etc.) but as it was supposed to be a light lunch, we declined! We saw some fellow diners’ desserts, though, and they did look pretty good.
Our server was really friendly, knowledgeable about the food and very helpful and efficient, and there were no issues with initially putting our name down for a table, or putting it back for a bit while we enjoyed the sunshine, so I’d rate the service pretty highly.
I found the ambience to be a bit disappointing, though, hence only two stars – the decor was nice and has a very strong Italian theme with big hams hanging down from a central serving ‘bar’, and tins of the aforementioned tomatoes generously adorning the place, but what I really didn’t like was the plethora of Jamie’s ‘merchandise’ that seemed to be on display everywhere you look. This really cheapened the experience for me of something which was otherwise a definite cut above the usual Italian chain restaurants, in terms of food and service. I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy something to advertise the fact they’ve just eaten at Jamie’s Italian, no matter how much they enjoyed it or how much of a fan they are of his. An alternative could be to have a separate ‘shop’ area somewhere on the way in/out (a bit like the Hard Rock Cafe venues) but I found it quite off putting to be sitting eating my meal, already spending good money in the venue, with numerous copies of Jamie’s cookbooks in my line of vision, trying to tempt me to buy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not someone who moans about “companies trying to make money out of people” (I always think anyone who gripes about this has slightly missed the point) but there is a time and a place, and I think those that want to buy would do so regardless of whether the merchandise was kept separate. Also, the music playing when we visited wasn’t in keeping with the place at all – it seemed to be a mix of 90s pop tunes. I’d have preferred something a bit more backgroundy, or perhaps no music at all, as I can imagine that on a busier day, when both floors of the place are full, it would have a great buzz of an Italian ‘cucina’ about it, which certainly doesn’t need to be enhanced by ‘The Best of the 90s’!
On the whole I was very pleasantly surprised by Jamie’s Italian. The food was good (despite the chilli overload) and I was impressed by the unusual selections, as I’m all for anything that encourages less adventurous diners to try something new. The service was excellent and would have got four stars anyway, but I’m giving an extra one for the added dimension of the real time tweet as I was so impressed! The food had the potential to be four stars from the imaginative menu, but my own choice was probably only a three. It’s definitely a step up from the Prezzos and ASKs of this world, and had the makings of ‘a chain that doesn’t feel like a chain’ but the in your face merchandise completely killed that, which is a shame. I’ll go back, but only if there’s no queue!
Food: *** Service: ***** Ambience: **
Jamie’s Italian, Unit LG 69/70, St David’s 2 Shopping Centre, Cardiff CF10 1GA