ASK THE newly-restored Assembly Rooms what it would most like to be, and I doubt it would be enthusiastic about a Jamie’s Italian. “No, I’m an exclusive sort of establishment,” this 18th-century gent would sniff, while adjusting his frockcoat.
By GABY SOUTAR
“If I must feed the minions, then give them snipe and chyne of mutton. Who is this James Trevor Oliver MBE anyway?”
Ignore the old macaroni. It is the 21st century and this money-spinning chain restaurant has landed. Anyway, I prefer the Edinburgh space to its other Scottish branch, in Glasgow’s old GPO building. The latter can feel a little crowded in the basement, but there isn’t a dud seat in the east-coast branch.
Its upper level is one of the restored Assembly Rooms’ grandest areas, with carved wood panels, parquet floors, antique mirrors and chandeliers. Connecting on to Rose Street, there’s also an airy, lower-level space, which features all the shelves of merchandising that a Church of Oliver might require.
The three of us (plus one pint-sized person, aged 18 months) sat upstairs. Here, the focal point is Billy Goat Gruff’s lair – aka a marble antipasti bar that is hung with limb-like hams and sausages.
In a typically Oliverian style, the highly-descriptive menu uses adjectives and verbs, as well as nouns, to convince you that each dish is pukka (though, provenance of ingredients is kept depressingly generic, with Scottish or English usually as close as you’ll get to map co-ordinates).
My wild rabbit tagliolini (£6.75) was rather dull, with only around five bunny scratchings. The pasta ribbons came in a garlicky white sauce that was studded with bits of carrot. Fine, but it read better than it tasted. I ate half, and the toddler in our group guzzled my leftovers, despite the fact that she had her own “mac ‘n’ cauli” (£5.95) dish from the kids’ menu. She appreciated this recipe – a healthier spin on macaroni cheese, with cruciferous veg, béchamel sauce, and a diced side salad in a Kilner jar. And there are good high-chairs here. Ones they can’t escape.
We also went for the fish antipasti plank (£7.50). Irritatingly served on a plank of wood balanced on two tins of tomatoes, this featured beetroot-marinated smoked salmon, coddy fritto misto, a fat olive, pickles, a pair of mussels, carrot and beetroot coleslaw with mint, as well as other dainty savouries. Good. However, our three fat risotto balls (£4.95) tasted stodgy and gluey, with barely any of the billed porcini and mozzarella.
We liked the main of black angel spaghetti (£13.95), which looked pretty, with pale scallops underneath the heap of squid-ink-dyed pasta, and plenty of anchovies, chilli and capers in the mix.
The feather steak (£13.35) was a flavoursome cut of bish-bash-boshed meat, though a bit sinewy in parts, and very hot, with chilli seeds scattered across the top like sexy confetti. It came with blistered tomatoes and red peppers, strewn with sage. Satisfying, though we couldn’t find the prosciutto ingredient. My “quick pickled green beans” on the billing – were also awol, when it came to the lamb breast (£12.75) although this stocky whorl of meat was nicely sweet, with a balsamic vinegar glaze.
However, if you love carbs as much as I do, then have the foresight to invest in a side dish.
Puddings were fab. An almond tart (£4.95) hid a layer of jammyness beneath its nutty smooth topping, with accompaniments of “smashed” strawberries and whipped cream, while an Amalfi lemon curd slice (£4.95) was zesty and curdy.
Compared to Edinburgh’s other restaurants, this Jamie Oliver outpost is unremarkable. However, for a chain, it’s pricey, but a keeper. Anyway, it’s worth a visit just to check out what they’ve done with the Assembly Rooms. He’d much rather see us feasting on calves foot jelly, but this lofty gent is looking very dapper.
• Jamie’s Italian, Assembly Rooms, 54 George St, Edinburgh. Tel: 0131 202 5452
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