WHEN Jamie Oliver unveiled the latest branch of his Italian-themed restaurants in Glasgow two years ago, on the opening day people queued for four hours and the line of would-be diners snaked around the block.
Nor has that momentum stalled: the restaurant on George Square averages 1,000 covers a day and is one of the top ten busiest in Britain. But then Glasgow is a land where the brand is king and where celebrity goes a long way.
The perception is that Edinburgh remains a world away, a more reticent place where having your mug on telly every ten minutes is no guarantee of success. And to judge by the opening day of Jamie’s Italian in the capital, that perception is spot on. Where there was an almost overwhelmingly exuberant interest in Glasgow, in the capital the levels of curiosity were so restrained that by the end of that first evening it was possible to walk up and get a table without having booked.
Those who took the time and trouble to hove in on the off-chance would have found it was well worth it. I’m no great fan of chain restaurants – and there are now 29 Jamie’s Italians here and three around the world – but what he has done with the supper rooms at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms is stunning. The 200-cover refit (with room for 40 outside on Rose Street) has come at a cost of £2.2 million, but it is an investment that has yielded a beautiful space that is in keeping with such a historic building, but which is also comfortable and contemporary. I’m not such a fan of the lower tier, near the door on Rose Street, but once you climb half a dozen steps and enter the main dining room, you’re in a space that will undoubtedly become a staple of the Edinburgh eating-out scene.
Crimson-walled and high-ceilinged, the place has benefitted from Oliver’s team restoring all the intricate stucco plasterwork and cornicing, much of which had previously been covered up. They’ve also fused the traditional with the modern, with red velveteen chairs that bring a cocktail-lounge feel to proceedings. The room is dominated by a huge Italian-style island bar, complete with hanging parma hams and looking for all the world like something lifted straight out of a Milanese dining room.
The attention to detail in all respects is impressive and unmistakeable, which we discovered as soon as we started talking to our young waiter, an eager-beaver Pole who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Welsh actor Michael Sheen (of Tony Blair, David Frost and Brian Clough fame). His knowledge of the menu and the provenance of the dishes was such that we eventually grilled him about how he was prepared for life in Jamiedom. He had come from the Glasgow restaurant, but still went through the same training all of the other waiters get, which is two weeks of nine-hour days learning all about the restaurant and every conceivable fact about the menu. Usefully, he could tell us what he liked on the menu because he had tried everything on it.
So we put ourselves completely in his hands, which turned out to be one of our better ideas. He suggested we start with a selection of three or four antipasti, so we ordered the polenta chips fried with rosemary and parmesan, the baked chestnut mushrooms with smoked mozzarella and crispy bread and the crispy squid with garlic mayonnaise. They were all fine, without pulling up any trees: the ever-so-slightly-crunchy squid was definitely the best of the bunch, and Vicky was very taken with the parmesany polenta chips. The baked chestnut mushrooms, however, were flaccid and tasteless, and although the introduction of a good dollop of mozzarella almost saved the day, this is a dish I’ve seen done better elsewhere.
If the starters were so-so, our main courses were excellent. Vicky chose the seaside risotto and received a dauntingly large platter of saffron-infused rice and a pile of shellfish and fish that included clams, mussels, prawns, cockles, non-crunchy squid and gurnard. On reflection, the size of the platter was a visual illusion – the amount of rice was just a couple of pieces deep – but the amount of seafood and fish was genuine and impressive. Our informative waiter told us the rice was acquerello, from Piedmont, which goes through endless dehusking processes that make it impossible to overcook and therefore expensive.
If Vicky liked her risotto, the wild rabbit taglioni recommended by our waiter (“but I have to explain that it’s English rabbit, because they are less tough than the Scots”) went down even better. This was simple food excellently executed, with the rabbit so slowly cooked it had disassembled into succulent shards, fused to the pasta by the mascarpone, with the lemon adding a tart edge that completed the ensemble brilliantly.
Pudding worked well too, with Vicky’s clear prosecco jelly containing a handful of raspberries and being served with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream to make a dish that was as visually arresting as it was tasty. My tiramisu was more like a solid wodge of coffee with some sponge and mascarpone attached. In fact, the taste of coffee was so overpowering that Vicky recoiled in horror at the smallest spoonful – as a ten-espressos-a-day man, this was right up my street.
And so was the whole Jamie’s Italian experience. I arrived with my prejudices intact, but was gradually worn down by the obvious professionalism and attention to detail. Nor was there any sense of being ripped off. Our litre of unoaked organic chardonnay di Puglia was the perfect accompaniment to the food, and at £21.75 a litre was decent value. This can also be said of the whole menu – my main course was only £10.95 and the starters and puds were both around a fiver each.
Jamie’s Italian was never meant to be fine dining, and it’s not; yet it remains a good-value, relaxed evening out in one of the best dining venues in the city. It may not witness the stellar success seen at the other end of the M8, but this one’s still going to run and run. The diamond geezer, it seems, is here to stay.
The Assembly Rooms, 54 George Street, Edinburgh (0131-202 5452, www.jamieoliver.com/italian/edinburgh)
Starters £3.75-£7.50 Main courses £8.95-£16.95 Puddings £4.95 Rating
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