Monday, January 9th, 2017
Reviewed by Marie-Lais Emond
Excitement reached fever pitch when we first heard news that Jamie Oliver was planning on opening a branch of his Italian restaurant in SA. The first Jamie’s Italian has now fully opened in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, after a short trial period, and the word is that at least two more Jamie’s Italians are planned for South Africa. At the moment the franchise chain consists of 60 Jamie’s Italians outside of the UK – although news broke last week that six Jamie’s Italian branches in the UK are to close.
The company has the offering down to a fine art, with much of the menu commonplace and then a few differences in certain dishes, styles and flavourings. Jamie Oliver has done very well with his television shows and restaurants, introducing nutrition to couch potatoes, and with this franchise focuses on sustainability. But what is the food like?
It’s easy to see that the restaurant is likely to be a success, not just for its initial novelty popularity, but because it offers accessibly good food. Dishes are easy to recognise and have Jamie Oliver’s twists built into their recipes.
Of the Antipasti & Nibbles selection, the crispy squid is a fantastic marriage of tastes and textures, with crunch, velvety aioli and complementary parsley-garlic combo. The slightly tomatoey addition to Jamie’s black olive tapenade cleverly sorts out that funny-tooth feeling of normal tapenade (part of the ‘World’s Best Olives’ starter). The risotto balls are generously portioned. The tomato bruschetta is not the Spanish rubbed toast but a pleasantly munchy starter. A classic meat plank for sharing is balanced at nose height on two Italian tomato-pulp cans. It features the classics, San Daniela ham and mortadella, but also a phenomenally creamy, fresh buffalo mozzarella.
Ingredients are all carefully, sustainably sourced. Before suppliers of meat are approved, the head office requests videos and pictures of the live animals. Local sustainability is key and, as is constantly proven, the more sustainable and chemical-free the ingredients, the better they taste. Here, of course, the best preparation methods for each main ingredient also factor into the great taste.
The sausage pappardelle is a flavourful, rustic and satisfying stew. The linguine with prawns has the pasta already sauce-coated in the pan and the prawns retain their direct firmness without an overbearing sea taste. The funghi misti pizza is a surprising success, the base the artisanal type and the topping a mix of flavourful roasted mushrooms creamed with mozzarella and chervil.
For mains, the burger already just looks delicious arriving at the table: a giant stack of grass-fed beef, melted gruyere and lots of pickles and chilli sauce. A saner main is the chicken Mattone, consisting of creamy mushrooms, crunchy toast, parmesan and a lemon-spiked herby salad. The Italian steak and fries is a sticking point: some don’t find the thin flank meat rare enough, but it might be just right for many others, and does come with good string fries and a nicely spicy tomato sauce. Differently flavoured chips are an option for a side – some cheesey-truffly and others garlic-rosemary. Side salads include a rather sweet but still very tasty soft purple slaw and a huge superfood salad of beetroot, broccoli, avo, pomegranate rubies, healthy seeds and cheese.
Desserts include ice cream from Paul’s Homemade Ice Creams; there will probably be a different supplier at the Cape Town Jamie's Italian. Already divine, the ice creams are taken one step further with Jamie’s toppings – smashed honeycomb being one delight. The epic chocolate brownie lives up to its name in terms of size and is nice enough but not outstandingly yummy. The real winners are an unsweetened wobbly panna cotta with sweetened berries – a nice contrast, like having real clotted cream with strawberry jam – and the Amalfi lemon cheesecake with extra-lemony sweetness and the inclusion of plump little currants.
Vegetarians and gluten-free eaters are well catered for, especially with some added info from the very knowledgeable staff.
Jamie’s Italian has its own soft drinks in cans and the menu cocktails are rather interesting. Some are even for dessert – witness a Passionata in a glass full of Galliano, with passion fruit and cream. There are a few proseccos on the sparkling wine list and can be had just in a glass or with Bellini peach purée, in a strawberry version or as an Aperol spritz.
For those with sustainability concerns, we could only find a Reynecke white, though South Africa has many very good organic wines. The wines include some Italian ones mainly from the Friuli and Veneto areas. As for the South African bottles, the list ranges from chummy Fat Bastard and Klein Zalze to the respected Iona class. The coffee is quite delicious, though sourced from South America.
It is what makes this restaurant exciting. Especially welcoming, the floor staff are experienced and spent a month getting to know these foods and drinks, even doing a practical week. They are a great asset and do tend to sell the menu, but in a fun way. They seem to be a bit territorial between themselves, but that can only work in a customer’s favour.
The atmosphere is a foregone conclusion because these Jamie’s Italians all look very similar. It’s quite a strong, clean look with dark woods and leather. However, there are lovely retro wall tiles in the bathrooms and downstairs too, sourced in South Africa, and they give the place a fun vibe. The long kitchen is sort-of visible and designed to show action through the shelf gaps and across the service counter. The cured hams and meats hanging down are a wonderful Jamie-ish feature. The ambience is buzzy and busy, especially in the evening; loud but not terrifying.
The kids’ menu is especially inventive and sounds delicious. It’s a pity there don’t seem to be many little ones in Melrose Arch.
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