Cambridge is an odd place in many ways – mostly good ways.
One thing Matt and Cat noticed during their visit is that, as tourists and British subjects, they were very much in the minority. Visitors are thick on the ground in Cambridge, and come from all nations. So the shops in Cambridge don’t just sell college scarves and postcards of punts. No, you can buy beefeater t-shirts, models of London buses, Scottish kilts and shortbread. Matt was even bumped into by two gesticulating French girls who were arguing over a guide book entitled ‘Londres’. One suspects that they needed considerable guidance.
A hugely popular shop is the alarming emporium called The Disney Store. This sells exactly the sort of thing you might expect it to. M&C passed it by with a shudder – but suddenly it came to mind as they were queueing for a third time to seek admission to Jamie’s Italian: a restaurant under the name of TV chef Jamie Oliver that has been open for just over a year in a former public library in the heart of Cambridge.
Matt and Cat had failed to get a table twice (you can’t book unless for a party of six or more), and were starting to worry. Neither of them had ever watched the mockney cook on the television, nor did they know anything about this restaurant other than that everyone else wanted to go in there. Had they made a horrible mistake? Was this going to be a Jamie theme park? Would they find the culinary equivalent of The Disney Shop – all superficiality and artifice, intended to appeal to foreign tourists and TV show enthusiasts? Well, it was their night to find out, as finally the metaphorical velvet rope was held aside, and they were offered a table in the cavernous old municipal building.
First impressions were that it was stunning; a spectacular venue to say the least. A huge and high ornate rotunda of Victorian design was supported by marble pillars, and the body of the hall was filled with chattering diners. Massive mirrors made the space seem almost endless, reflecting the astonishing architecture as well as the busy restaurant floor below. A big, open kitchen was to one side, and festooned with hams, dried chillies and sausages to such an extent that at first they looked like props. Looking closer, it became apparent that there was someone actually slicing meat from one of those hams – this was the real thing.
M&C were seated by a comically cheery waiter whose chirpy manner, plus the strictly observed staff uniform of faded jeans and a white shirt, could only put one in mind of the great TV chef himself. However – and perhaps like Jamie too – it soon proved that this was not just superficial. The waiter not only presented the menu well, but volunteered plenty of information about the cooking processes and ingredients. It was an unimpeachably professional performance, yet disarmingly human and informal.
To start: chilli squid to share. A handful of piping hot squid chunks in an ultra-light tempura were dusted with finely chopped herbs and fresh chilli. It was presented with utmost care on a brown paper squid-napkin with line drawings of Jamie’s trademark Italian scooter; alongside a cast-iron ramekin of powerful home-made garlic mayonnaise. In the mouth, the dish worked as well as it did on the eye – it had everything going for it. The squid was as light and soft as one could hope for, as the poky garlic and chilli set Matt and Cat’s mouths watering for the next course.
Apple juice £2.95
500ml Primitivo wine £11.85
Crispy squid £5.75
Feather steak £13.35
Lamb ragu £12.95
Polenta chips £3.45
Gorgonzola salad £3.75
Ice cream £4.50
Pineapple carpaccio £4.95
Coffee x 2 £4.00
Matt’s main was feather steak: “wafer thin prime British feather steak pounded with sage and prosciutto, flash grilled with a spicy tomato, basil and chilli salsa“. He also rather daringly read through the wine list and spotted that the house wines were not actually the cheapest wines – there were in fact several wines at reasonable prices, and many available by the glass or 500ml. Obviously to sell part-bottles is a privilege of a very big venue with high turnover, but it would be great if this trend spread. As a sign of his approval Matt uncharacteristically ordered 500ml of Italian Primitivo di Salento (a wine seemingly exclusively available through Jamie’s Italian). He was glad he did, as the feather steak was well worth it. A thin fillet had been hammered intensely, justifying its feathery moniker. This enabled the meat to soak up the delicious juices from the herbs and the tomato salsa on top. A few shreds of prosciutto ham completed the dish, which was a splendid creation. Matt had been offered a choice of chips (at extra cost) and had alongside his steak a lovely ceramic bowl bearing crispy polenta with rosemary salt and Parmesan. This audacious attempt to shoehorn the good old British chip into an Italian meal was surprisingly successful. Certainly if it hadn’t been a choice on the chip menu Matt would have been unlikely to have tried it – as it was it worked a treat. This main course was the star of the show in Matt’s view.
Cat’s main dish was the only one still available on the specials board – “Gorgeous Elkington lamb ragu with a sofrito of veg, loadsa herbs, Chianti and plum tomatoes and tossed though with our freshly-made tagliatelle“. The waiter lovingly described the entire cooking process in such detail that Cat was unable to resist. She also noted approvingly that the meal was available in small or large portions – and with prices to match. The lamb was lean and soft and very herby and came with a generous heap of soft pasta which Matt dutifully finished after Cat had had her fill.
Although M&C had a meal with plenty of extras, if you wanted to you could probably eat at Jamie’s Italian surprisingly cheaply. For example, Matt and Cat shared a Gorgonzola salad which, at £3.75 was an absolute steal. The generous heap of leaves mixed with celery, walnuts, pear and big chunks of crumbled cheese was hard to resist. It arrived on an enamel plate, the rim of which had suspiciously symmetrical contrived distressing. The attention to detail in the restaurant was extremely apparent, from the vintage bread station to Jamie-branded woven linen napkins. It was an interesting alternative to those venues which have ill-considered graphics and tired and grubby fixtures and fittings. Matt and Cat got the impression that someone had their eye well and truly on the ball.
Matt and Cat were coasting towards the end of the meal now. Any thoughts of writing a scornful mickey-take of the TV chef had been put firmly to one side: they knew that Jamie’s Italian was something special, and was offering a product that chain restaurants had previously never really pulled off. Fears of a Jamie celeb overkill were dispelled – whilst the eponymous chef was referenced (for example by the scooter on the squid paper, and some branded merchandise for sale at the doorway) it was subtle stuff, and his widely-expounded vision of bringing good cooking and healthy ingredients to a wider audience was quite clearly being put into practice in a pretty direct way. Assuming these restaurants turn out to be sustainable businesses, Oliver appears to be actually practising what he preaches.
Dessert for Cat was a trio of ice creams, offered in an ironic stainless-steel bowl that delighted 70s-retro chick Cat almost as much as its contents. From the varied choice she selected a scoop each of cherry, double chocolate, and caramel and salt. There was also a choice of toppings and she picked butterscotch and seasonal fruit, which turned out to be a scattering of red berries. This chaotic mix of sweets worked really well, both orally and visually – the chilled lilac, brown and cream spheres nestled together creating a further reference to the 1970s; a neo-Neapolitan if you will (Jamie, you can have that name, on us!).
Matt tried pineapple carpaccio – thin slivers of pineapple with mint, chilli and blood-orange sorbet. This worked. No, really, it did. The crushed mint leaves infused the pineapple with their distinctive smell, whilst the finely-chopped fresh chilli added a remarkable zing to the wafer-thin pineapple. This unusual ‘carpaccio’ provided a great demonstration of a clever and exciting dish, made by assembling a few common fresh ingredients in an unexpected way. Classic Oliver magic.
Coffee was a smoky Italian blend that couldn’t have been better matched to the food. After the diners had paid (and after they’d left a tip, so no suggestion of currying favour here) the waiter chatted to them with an impressive depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the restaurant, its fabric and history, the philosophy of the eponymous chef and of course the food. To have such a discussion with the server would be a credit to any restaurant, but in a chain eatery, at the scrag-end of a busy weekend, this kind of attention was exceptional, indicating a level of investment in staff that Matt and Cat are always delighted to discover. What’s more, you don’t have to go to Cambridge to see all this for yourself. There are about twenty of these places all around the country, including Gunwharf in Portsmouth, just five miles from Ryde via the passenger ferry. Matt and Cat are likely to be making that trip some time soon – they recommend you do the same.
UPDATE: Matt and Cat reviewed Jamie’s Italian Portsmouth in November 2011.
On tour with Matt and Cat: Jamie’s Italian, Cambridge