Lubbly jubbly pukka tukka ; The North East's most candid food critic - now writing every Saturday in The Journal [Newcastle Journal (England)]
(Newcastle Journal (England) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) WITH his culinary apprenticeship in London's River Cafe, it was almost inevitable that Jamie Oliver would choose Italian food for his assault on the mass market. What's surprised me is how long he's taken build a branch of his theme park in Newcastle. When the first one opened in Oxford six years ago, there were queues round the block - part of a deliberate marketing ploy to generate excitement by having no booking system. Now you can book, but during these first few weeks in the city it's genuinely hard to get a table in the early evening; I dropped in on a quiet mid-week afternoon to find the main restaurant absolutely packed, but plenty of space downstairs.
Unlike Carluccio's disastrous first month here (see my review on www.secretdiner.org) when everything seemed to go wrong, the Jamie's Italian machine has worked like clockwork. Jamie Oliver, chirpy chappy, national treasure, who signs his emails Big Love, has become a corporation. Welcome to Jamieland. It's a fantastic location with wonderful views overlooking Grey's Monument, and the design and ambience are seriously impressive. On the ground floor is a massive bar area to where you're led by the greeter as soon as you arrive. Not for a drink - no, in this "pack-em-in-serveem-quick" place it's somewhere to wait until they come to take you to your table.
There's a long elevated bartop for communal dining, and lots of leather benches and paraphernalia. There's pressed steel and bold graffiti-like art. But what works best is the clever lighting - despite the size, it really has quite an intimate feel. Upstairs, with the view down Grey Street, it's a buzzy, busy brasserie, but you can still hear each other.
Like any good theme park, the staff have been drilled into the brand ethos. They seem to have had lessons in Jamie-isms. One waitress constantly addressed me as "darling", while another squeezed my shoulder as she asked how the food was - ironically just as Michael Buble was singing I Haven't Met You Yet on the music system. The cheeky chapesse who took our order sat down at the table with us. I doubt she learnt that at catering school.
It was all in keeping with the overfamiliar, jolly menu: full of superlatives and confidence - World's Best Olives, Our Famous Planks, Beautiful Steak, Our Incredible Set Lunch. We'll see about that.
According to the menu, all the pasta is "made here, every day, with love". I didn't notice any particular looks of adoration from the man in charge of the industrial-sized pasta machines at the top of the stairs next to the gents, patiently folding his panzerotti, surrounded by bags of semolina. Speaking of gents, even the facilities have been Jamied - Thomas Crapper and Co cisterns are conveniently inscribed The Oliver.
The open kitchen is brightly lit and busy, and there are herds of parma hams hanging from the ceiling waiting to be sliced on to the famous giant planks, which can be bought for Pounds 45 on the way out. All over the city, people are now having to throw dinner parties to justify buying these lumps of wood, filling them, just like Jamie, with little mounds of fennel salami, mortadella, buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and pickles - wicked. More likely they'll be stuffed into cupboards along with the holiday knick-knacks, gathering dust until it's time to move house.
The menu ranges from cheapish pastas and small plates to grills and blackboard specials, including tempting Ligurian fish stew with English shellfish for Pounds 15.95. This is mid-market, pile-em-in catering, but it actually works, and the food's a pretty good introduction to rustic Italian cooking.
Sourdough bruschetta with slightly crunchy Tuscan beans and good olive oil (or, as Jamie has it: "stunning olive oil - the absolute best and bang in season") was very good. We also tried crispy arancini. Often notoriously dry, these riceballs were moist with mozzarella and sweet peppers, served with an arrabbiata sauce containing slightly overfried garlic slivers and slightly underreduced canned tomatoes. But at Pounds 4.95, who's complaining? Spinach and taleggio croquettes were excellently cheesy. We also tried The World's Best Olives, which were green and rather good.
We moved on to nicely trimmed lamb "lollipops" served on a wooden board, grilled perfectly pink, dipped into bowls of pickled mint, tarragon and red onion salad, lemony yoghurt dressing and toasted nuts.
Two pastas came alongside: pappardelle with ragu of braised fennel sausage "from my mate Jimmy Doherty" (of Jimmy's Farm fame), which was nicely rich, and some wild rabbit ragu, which wasn't. I normally adore wild rabbit, but this sauce was insipid and too loose to properly coat a pasta as robust as casarecce tubes. A side of kale, fried with lemon, garlic and butter was fresh and authentic.
Desserts were mass-produced and poor. The blow-torched lemon meringue was like marshmallow fluff. The amaretti and granola crumble with frozen yoghurt and fruit was a pointless concoction, and my tiramisu lacked alcohol, creaminess and ladies fingers, instead using thin layers of sponge.
We had wine out of a box. Seriously: the house wines arrive in "Tetra Pak cartons, from Sicilian grapes". Although a little pricey at Pounds 4.95 for just 175ml, it's actually quite drinkable.
What's not to like about this place? The pasta's homemade, it has the world's best olives, and you can go home with a souvenir plank of wood. Big love.
Secret Diner's Verdict (out of 5 stars) Food Service Ambience Jamie's Italian Unit 3 Monument Mall Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7AL 0191 500 0858 www.jamieoliver.com/italian Mon - Sat: 12-11pm Sun: 12- 10.30pm Accessibility - Yes DEAR SECRET DINER From Lane7 (@Lane7Newcastle): So very chuffed with the review. Glad to have helped you complete your North East burger quest!
From Kenny Atkinson (@KennyAtkinson1): (on Lane7) The concept is bang on, food is top drawer. Just what Newcastle needs.
From Nicky Bramley (@rankamateur): Chilli pimp dog joy. It's great, fun food. And your photographic skills seem to be improving!
SD: Thanks Nicky. Mrs Diner bought a new camera.
From: Michelle Bond (@shellbond): You should try the Purple Pig at Yarm for a good burger.
From: Stephen Howse (@liberalstephen): Try Hippo Underground. The deep-fried gherkins are incredible.
From Peter Robinson Smith (@petenurse): Visited Cal's Own again last night. You are right (as always) - best pizza in the Toon!
Do you agree with the Secret Diner's verdict? Do you have a favourite restaurant you'd like him to visit? You can email him direct at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send a tweet to @SecretDiner1. You can read all his reviews on www.secretdiner.org
The servers have had lessons in Jamie-isms. One waitress constantly addressed me as "darling" and another squeezed my shoulder. I doubt they learnt that at catering school.
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