Jamie Oliver: Charitable cockney. Motor-mouthed savour of obese school children. Destroyer of the English tongue. Some people – food writers mostly, professional or otherwise – see him as the culinary Anti-Christ. A condescending mass of checked shirts and hypocrisy, who started off a man of the people with the non-profitable Fifteen group and ended up bringing that tired lingo of his to every city with the very much profitable Jamie’s Italian. Personally, I have a degree of empathy for him. He has bills to pay and kids to feed. His charity work is still in full working order. I don’t have a problem with him lining the pockets of his distressed denim if the food is worthy of my money leaving the pockets of mine.
The Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham is a big place. It looks how someone who has never been to the city might think that a Jewellery Quarter workshop looks like. And that is not a compliment. Its a mismatched collection of steel girders, mesh, and industrial sized wooden planks. Nothing feels natural; everything is forced. The menu is appealing, save for the dreadful adjectives that too often haunt them. I like the tapenade that comes with the basket of bread, its deep with olive and tomato notes, but “fantastic” it is not. I find few things in life fantastic; Match of The Day, a well made Old Fashioned, or a Russell Brand movie that flops at the box office. This tapenade is good at best, even with it rescuing a focaccia which dried out yesterday. We’ve only been here fifteen minutes and already I am reaching for another glass of wine.
Fortunately, things improved. A summer truffle risotto needed the flavoured oil to give flavour to the Tubers that were limited in flavour. At the root was a good stock and well cooked rice which was almost loose enough. Mollica – fried breadcrumbs – gave it a pleasant texture. At £6.50 no one in their right mind could accuse this of being poor value. A crab arancini with plenty of crustacean hit the right spot, thanks to a yoghurt dressing that shimmered with the most Italian of citrus’, yuzu.
Pappardelle, made fresh that day, was applaudable in effort, if a little thick. The ragu of sausage a fraction under-seasoned, with the advertised chianti flavour barely present. More of the mollica was there for substance and crunch. It was home cooking, executed well. Come to my house and the other half will cook you something very similar which is far better. A leg of duck on a carpaccio of orange was given further lightness with lentils, pomegranate, and a fennel salad. Slightly overdone meat aside, it was a dish that danced with citrus and aniseed. Everything in sync and not one ingredient too many. Chips with roasted garlic were unwarranted though quickly eaten.
We finish with a pavlova full of macerated raspberries and chewy honeycomb, before settling up on a bill that works out at a shade over twenty-five quid a head. It seems a fair price to pay for the quality served. Would I go out of my way to recommend Jamie’s Italian? No, but the reality is Italian food in Birmingham is woefully represented and I would find it difficult to recommend anywhere for that cuisine. Here is a large operation (probably too large to control high standards), where, yuzu aside, quality and provenance is key. Its time to take the personal vendetta towards Oliver away and access the restaurant for exactly what it is. Pukka it is not. Satisfactory it certainly is.