Newcastle upon Tyne
0191 500 0858
Mon – Sat: 12-11pm
Accessibility – Yes
With his culinary apprenticeship in London’s River Café, it was almost inevitable that Jamie Oliver would choose Italian food for his assault on the mass market. What’s surprised me is how long he’s taken build a branch of his theme park in Newcastle.
When the first one opened in Oxford six years ago, there were queues round the block – part of a deliberate marketing ploy to generate excitement by having no booking system. Now you can book, but during these first few weeks in the city it’s been hard to get a table in the early evening; I dropped in on a quiet mid-week afternoon to find the main restaurant almost packed, but plenty of space downstairs.
Unlike Carluccio’s disastrous first month here (see my review on www.secretdiner.org) when everything seemed to go wrong, the Jamie Italian machine has worked like clockwork. Jamie Oliver, chirpy chappy, national treasure, who signs his emails Big Love, has become a corporation. Welcome to Jamieland.
It’s a fantastic location with wonderful views overlooking Grey’s monument, and the design and ambience are seriously impressive.
On the ground floor is a massive bar area to where you’re led by the greeter as soon as you arrive. Not for a drink – no, in this “pack-em-in-serve-em-quick” place it’s somewhere to wait until they come to take you to your table.
There’s a long elevated bartop for communal dining, and lots of leather benches and paraphernalia. There’s corrugated steel and bold graffiti-like art.
But what works best is the clever lighting – despite the size, it really has quite an intimate feel. Upstairs, with the view down Grey Street, it’s a buzzy, busy brasserie, but you can still hear each other.
Like any good theme park, the staff have been drilled into the brand ethos. They seem to have had lessons in Jamie-isms.
One waitress constantly addressed me as “darling”, while another squeezed my shoulder as she asked how the food was – ironically just as Michael Bublé was singing “I Haven’t Met You Yet” on the music system.
The cheeky chapesse who took our order sat down at the table with us. I doubt she learnt that at catering school. It was all in keeping with the over-familiar, jolly menu: full of superlatives and confidence – World’s Best Olives, Our Famous Planks, Beautiful Steak, Our Incredible Set Lunch. We’ll see about that.
According to the menu, all the pasta is “made here, every day, with love.” I didn’t notice any particular looks of adoration from the man in charge of the industrial-sized pasta machines at the top of the stairs next to the gents, patiently folding his panzerotti, surrounded by sacks of semolina.
Speaking of the gents, even the facilities have been Jamied – Thomas Crapper and Co cisterns are conveniently inscribed The Oliver.
The open kitchen is brightly lit and busy, and there are herds of parma hams hanging from the ceiling waiting to be sliced onto the 'famous' giant planks, which can be bought for £45 on the way out.
All over the city, people are now having to throw dinner parties to justify buying these lumps of wood, piling them up, just as Jamie does, with little mounds of fennel salami, mortadella, buffalo mozzarella, pecorino and pickles – wicked. Soon they’ll be stuffed into cupboards along with the holiday knick-knacks, gathering dust until it’s time to move house.
The menu ranges from cheapish pastas and small plates to grills and blackboard specials, including tempting Ligurian fish stew with English shellfish for £15.95. This is mid-market catering for the masses, but it actually works, and the food’s a pretty good introduction to rustic Italian cooking.
We also saw the odd burger sail by – they looked huge, but on closer examination seemed to be full of iceberg lettuce and tomato rather than exciting modern burger ingredients. I recommend you stick to the Italian cooking.
Sourdough bruschetta with slightly crunchy Tuscan beans and good olive oil (or, as Jamie has it: “stunning olive oil – the absolute best and bang in season”) was very good.
We also tried crispy arancini. Often notoriously dry, these riceballs were moist with mozzarella and sweet peppers, served with an arrabbiata sauce containing overfried garlic slivers and under-reduced canned tomatoes. But at £4.95, who’s complaining if the sauce is wrong and the garlic burnt?
I know, I should have sent it back, but I couldn't face another round of darlings.
Spinach and taleggio croquettes were excellently cheesy. We also tried The World’s Best Olives, which were green and rather good.
We moved onto nicely trimmed lamb “lollipops” served on a wooden board, grilled perfectly pink, dipped into bowls of pickled mint, tarragon and red onion salad, lemony yoghurt dressing and toasted nuts.
Two pastas came alongside: pappardelle with ragú of braised fennel sausage “from my mate Jimmy Doherty” (of Jimmy’s Farm fame), which was nicely rich, and some wild rabbit ragú, which wasn’t.
I normally adore wild rabbit, but this sauce was insipid and too loose to properly coat a pasta as robust as casarecce tubes. A side of kale, fried with lemon, garlic and butter was fresh and authentic.
Desserts were mass-produced and poor. The blow-torched lemon meringue was like marshmallow fluff. The amaretti and granola crumble with frozen yoghurt and fruit was a pointless concoction, and my tiramisu lacked alcohol, creaminess and ladies fingers, instead containing very unauthentic thin layers of sponge.
We had wine out of a box. Seriously: the house wines arrive in “Tetra Pak cartons, from Sicilian grapes". Although a little pricey at £4.95 for just 175ml, it’s actually quite drinkable.
What’s not to like about this place? The pasta’s homemade, it has the world’s best olives, and you can go home with a souvenir plank of wood. Big love.