On a day trip to Portsmouth, Matt and Cat built up a decent appetite shopping at Karen Millen for a party dress for The Cat.
An eager shop assistant presented Cat with an optimistically-sized dress which, apparently, she could diet into. She was then offered the next size up, which was too baggy. "Never mind", suggested Matt, forever seeing the best of any situation and reflecting the shop girl’s earlier advice, "you can eat your way into it!". With Matt’s sage advice ringing in Cat’s ears, they went to Jamie’s Italian to start the fattening process.
If a steam-roller had two wheels and a smoking two-stroke exhaust, it would look like Jamie Oliver’s Aprilia. And the indefatigable moped is pootling to a city near you. As the Isle of Wight does not have a city, the nearest its inhabitants are likely to get to one of the mockney foodie’s restaurant franchises is by sailing to Portsmouth.
Occupying a prime spot in the vast capitalist complex of Gunwharf, Jamie’s Italian is easy to find. When M&C first went to one of the evangelising chef’s restaurants it was in a sympathetically refurbished grade two listed library in historic Cambridge; all distressed mirrors, forest green tiles and chunky wood surfaces – perfect mid-Victorian municipal. Obviously this interior style could have been slotted into the Pompey shopping centre’s vast unit – bish, bash, bosh – but Jamie’s designers have clearly looked at the twenty-first century site, shaken their heads and sent the truckload of Victoriana back to Dickinson’s Real Deal. Instead, they have "scoured local reclamation yards for old shipyard winches and hoists to give the place a nautical feel". Clad in bits of shipping container with dangling chains and robust bulkhead lights, this heavy-duty industrial interior may seem a bit brutal, but in fact it worked very well, and the designer cleverly dropped some rather broad hints at what they thought of both the rather characterless building and the maritime heritage of the area.
Like the Cambridge iteration of the restaurant, Jamie’s Italian Portsmouth is a vast cave of a venue which must be able to seat a couple of hundred. Despite the canteen-like layout – servery on one side and troughers on the other – Matt and Cat were shown into a booth, separated from the majority of the dining area by reeded glass which took Cat back to the interior glazed doors in her grandmother’s bungalow.
The details of the daily specials – monkfish tails wrapped in Parma ham and served on sweated tomatoes – were lovingly characterised by the engaging waitress. This presentation is another key feature of the chain which garnered approval from your reviewers. The waitress was sent away several times as Cat was finding it particularly difficult to choose what to have, in the end plumping for wild ragù pasta pipe. Matt had already ordered chicken liver tortellini.
Unsurprisingly for such a cavernous venue, the acoustics in Jamie’s Italian Portsmouth were not dissimilar to a school dining hall, clattering, chatting and the occasional scrape of a chair added to the jolly communal atmosphere – a far cry, it must be said, from the austere reverence of the Island’s Hambrough. Through the noisy fug the faint rhythm of piped music could be heard. It was fun straining to recognise the songs by just the baseline and hiss of a snare drum.
Matt and Cat’s starter was delivered promptly; crispy stuffed rice balls of smoked mozzarella and porcini arancini nestled in a conical pot, with a sprinkling of Parmesan strands giving the balls a cheesy comb-over look. To add extra interest and a bit of poke, a fresh chilli salsa was alongside. M&C broke open the fresh hot sticky spheres and the leaky cheese dribbled out. The claggy rice balls were a good winter dish and, with their gooey centres, resembled savoury crème eggs. It was a surprisingly filling starter which M&C divided up inequitably, two for Matt, one for Cat.
Crispy rice balls £4.95
Chicken liver tortellini £10.95
Wild ragù pasta pipe £12.95
Humble green salad £3.25
Posh chips £3.25
Chocolate torte £4.95
Apple juice £2.95
Moretti beer £3.95
2 x coffee @ £2
Matt’s chicken liver tortellini was a pretty sight; a pleasing regiment of stuffed pasta stood to attention on a long thin plate. The eight doughy purses contained ‘Norfolk Black’ chicken livers flamed with Vin Santo, sage and pancetta, served with creamy sage butter. Matt, a big fan of liver, was delighted. The pasta filling was as smooth as pâté and contrasted nicely with the crispy pancetta.
Cat’s slow-cooked seasonal game, Barbera, tomatoes and Parmesan was served on pasta pipes. Cat had forgotten to ask for the deli-sized portion and found the whole dish rather hearty – which is her euphemism for stodgy ‘man-food’. It was tasty though and chock full of meaty chunks. Matt could see that she was a bit overwhelmed by her lunch and manfully offered to swap his, by now, six pieces of pasta for her massive bowl. It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
Faced with the tortellini, Cat was a bit apprehensive. Her first experience of eating liver was when it was dolloped on her plate by a dinner lady whose sleeveless tabard showed off her appetite-destroying mottled bingo wings. Cat was worried that Jamie’s school canteen atmosphere might give her an unwelcome flashback to coarse liver and lumpy mash. However, her fears were unfounded. The pasta was superb. A delicate dish constructed with perfection.
The game pasta pipes were an unusual combination of seasonal tastes and textures which worked splendidly. A generous allowance of meat formed a kind of rich stew, which covered the pasta and made a really wholesome dish. Matt even managed to extract a bit of lead shot to prove that it really was game.
Matt and Cat also had a ‘humble’ green salad, which was far too modest a name for the generous creation which was delivered to the table. A bowl of ‘posh chips’ finished the main course; hot and tasty chunky spud fingers served with truffle oil and, like the salad, rice balls and tortellini, sprinkled with grated Parmesan.
Cat, thinking about the loose-fitting dress at Karen Millen, decided that they really ought to have pudding and was easily swayed by the day’s special: chocolate and red wine torte with poached pears, served with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with liqueur. Here the hitherto faultless service had a hiccup. Their deliciously strong post-pudding Musetti coffees were delivered, but the dessert itself didn’t arrive until the cups were drained. Matt clocked the waitress doing an impromptu swerve back to the kitchen; she’d clearly been en route to clear away the coffee cups when she realised the (by now cold) pudding was waiting patiently in the servery. Despite the delay and lack of warmth, the soft-centred sweet was light and cakey and the spicy pears were a delightful accompaniment.
Once again Jamie’s digestive juggernaut delivered. The venue respected its rather utilitarian environment with clever touches of industrial nauticalia – a contrast to the maritime clutter of the Spyglass and Bargeman’s Rest. The service was polite and friendly although not as spectacularly informative as the top waiter Matt and Cat had interrogated in Cambridge. The food was, of course, outstanding: interesting, well-presented and accessible. A bit of local provenance is about the only thing that might have made it even more commendable.
For Islanders, it’s definitely worth the journey across the water. Matt and Cat had three courses and drinks, but for a more budget-concious lunch they could easily have spent half as much. With side salads from £2.25 and lunchtime deli pastas from £6.25, Jamie’s Italian is excellent value for money. Cushty!