The opening of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in St Albans has been hotly anticipated.
Since it was first revealed in summer 2010 the celebrity chef wanted to turn the Bell pub in Chequer Street into a Jamie’s Italian, the first in Hertfordshire, rarely a week went by without someone messaging him on Twitter asking when it was going to open.
But with a big build up comes big expectations. And with a restaurant which can seat a sizeable 150 diners, customers would need to leave wanting to come back for more.
We arrive at 7pm on a Friday evening, just a few days after its opening on February 5, and it’s busy. We are shown to our seats and are immediately swept up in the hustle and bustle of the place.
As you walk through the main door, in front of you is a stack of wooden trays displaying loaves of bread, reminiscent of a market stall or a deli. Joints of ham hang from a beam. It’s a little theatrical, as though the aim is to conjure up a corner of Oliver’s beloved Italy.
To the left is a small bar where several people mill around, sip drinks and wait for their table. Beyond the trays of bread is the main room, which has an open kitchen along one side, emitting a thick aroma of garlic.
Although there were some objections over transforming this historic English coaching inn into an upmarket restaurant, it’s interesting to observe whether there are similarities with its new incarnation. There’s nothing stiff or formal about Jamie’s Italian. The diners may be smartly dressed, but the restaurant is cosy and welcoming. The tables are packed in close, the lamps on the walls cast a mellow light. There’s chatter and clattering plates in the background.
Many features of the old pub have been preserved. The decor is a curious mix of rustic and modern. The wooden floorboards, exposed brickwork, elegant fireplaces sit alongside bright red sofas and metal tables. There are two smaller rooms, one in which we are seated, which look out over Chequer Street.
There’s certainly no doubt over whose restaurant it is as his merchandise is everywhere. Packets of Jamie Oliver pasta are on display, his many cook books line the bookshelves – a testament to his impressive productivity, and even the napkins bear the name “Jamie”.
I chose a glass of white wine, the Fiano Di Avellino Campania (£6.25). The menu says Fiano is tipped as the new 'it' grape. It’s grown in the southern region of Italy, and lends the wine a deliciously peachy flavour. My companion went for a refreshing bottle of Moretti beer.
The menu needed a little studying due to its many options. The sections include Bread and Nibbles, Antipasti, Pasta, Mains, Sides and Desserts. Unsure how much to choose, our waitress helpfully guided us through the menu.
We were curious when two tins of tomatoes arrived at our table (were we to cook our own dinner?). But it transpired these were to be used as supports for our Seasonal Meat Antipasti Plank (£6.85 a head). A selection of cured meats, including San Daniele prosciutto and a ham with pistachios, were served alongside a light ball of creamy buffalo mozzarella, a wedge of hard pecorino cheese, sticky chilli jam and juicy green olives. The waitress told us the order in which to eat certain foods to appreciate them best. It was great sampling and musing over our favourites.
We had also ordered Baked Chestnut Mushrooms (£5.25) which were a real hit. A thin crispy bread base was topped with succulent mushrooms entangled in an abundance of melted smoked mozzarella.
For the next course I chose the South Coast Fritto Misto (£15.95), which promised mixed crispy fried fish of the day, served with zesty Italian tartare sauce and fresh lemon. Its arrival drew murmurs of surprise. A huge lattice of deep fried spaghetti, which resembled a fishing net, sprawled across the plate and beneath it lay a treasure trove of crispy fried fish and squid. The plate was lined with brown paper, bringing to mind fish and chips at the seaside.
There was a generous amount of fish, and the light salty batter was perfectly complemented by the citrus sauce. I chose posh chips (with truffle oil and parmesan, £3.25) as a side, which were tasty. If you prefer something healthier a crunchy salad (£2.25) would serve as a good option.
My companion chose the Cockles Linguine (£13.35), a familiar Italian dish that somewhat captured the essence of the restaurant. The pasta was firm and lightly seasoned and the cockles, to be tackled one by one, added a playful edge to the dish.
The list of desserts was mouth-watering, Sicilian cheesecake, creamy pannacotta, “special tiramisu” to name a few. I chose Peach and Almond Tart (£4.95), a frangipane tart with preserved peaches, whipped yoghurt and honey, which was superb. The tart was moist and the sweetness of the almond balanced out beautifully with the yoghurt. My companion went for a ricotta cheesecake, topped with a little sprinkling of candied fruits. Again the dish had a vibrancy to its appearance and a depth to its taste which lifted it far above the mass-manufactured cheesecakes that outbound elsewhere. It was a fine, if indulgent, way to round off a varied and impressive meal.
While Jamie’s Italian is not incredibly expensive for the restaurant of a famous chef, it’s not cheap either. But what you get for your money is a menu that has originality and flair. Unlike many Italian restaurants, there are no predictable, tired-looking offerings. There is an element of the unusual in the dishes, whether a particular ingredient, the way it has been cooked or its presentation. The portion sizes are generous and the food, to use The Naked Chef’s own words, is pretty pukka.