Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Review of Jamie's Italian, The Riverside, Reading

Jamie's Italian is just across the river from the Oracle shopping centre, Riverside

For my sister's birthday treat I decided to take her out for lunch. After a quick wander round Reading we found ourselves in the glass-panelled, globe chandeliered Jamie's Italian near The Oracle shopping centre. There are currently seventeen of these restaurants in the UK, and the number seems to expand each month, with new openings in Portsmouth and Milton Keynes on the horizon. But is it worth all the hype? Something special or bog standard bolognese? Here's how we got on.

The Location
Situated next to the riverside just outside the Oracle in Reading, Jamie's Italian is in a prime spot. There is a cinema and plenty of other restaurants here - Wagamama, Yo Sushi, Nandos and Pizza Express for example - but you can't really miss this slightly-futuristic looking building that seems to lean across one side of the river. There's seating outside and upstairs as well as on the ground floor and you get a great view of the hustle and bustle around the Oracle and the meandering ducks that glide up and down the river (along with the odd canoeist).

On arrival, we got to choose where we wanted to sit (upstairs, inside) and the waitress made us feel very welcome and relaxed, as she led us to our table with menus. The relaxed atmosphere is also reflected in the decor. There was a mixture of shabby chic (white and green metal chairs, old-fashioned blackboards) opulence (the stunning ball chandelier) and more formal dining (white tablecloths, snazzy looking bar). Giant hams hang, alongside chillies and tomatoes around the bar area and around the restaurant are big bags of flour, different pastas and stacks of Jamie's books. As I looked around, I noticed people eating from dishes propped up on tomato cans which made for easier sharing, and little viewfinders that children were using to choose their food. 

The atmosphere is unfussy and impromptu. But somehow the special touches (the wine coolers, the chandelier, the polished and attentive staff) give you the feeling that you really are in for a treat.

The Food

I have to be brutally honest and say that there was a part of me that was sceptical about what the food would be like here. Jamie doesn't cook here (although he does have a hands-on role in the business) and I wondered how 'special' the food was going to be. But I was literally stunned.

For starters, we had the self-proclaimed 'World's Best OIives on Ice' and a grilled mushroom bruscetta. The firm, fat green olives from Puglia are served on crushed ice with a sundried tomato and black olive tapenade. Because it gets chilled from the ice, it all tastes really refreshing. The tapenade is spiked with three jagged crisps for scooping it out - if you're sharing like we did, I challenge you not to fight over the last one.

The bruschetta was crisp, and topped with aromatic, woody open cap mushrooms that had hints of lemon, garlic and thyme. Both the starter options were big on flavour.

The mushroom ravioli at Jamie's Italian - along with my cheeky chip!

Onto the main course, and we ordered the mushroom ravioli - again packed with bold flavours and tossed in a grainy, rich tomato sauce - and the 'Fish Baked in a Bag'. The fish at Jamie's comes in a parcel of foil and parchment paper, cooked with ingredients including cracked wheat, capers, lemon and fennel, along with mussels, clams and anchovies. The fish was sustainable, as you would expect (whiting on the day we went) and was succulent, having absorbed the other flavours in its little parcel. To go with the fish, my sister ordered the 'Funky Chips', but it was really filling enough without them. The funky chips by the way are crisp, chunky chips tossed in garlic, salt and parsley. I had to pinch a few, that's why there's one on my plate! They come served in a little pot and have possibly changed the way we eat chips at home. The kids love them.

For dessert, there really was no other option than the 'Awesome Chocolate and Espresso Tart' (the food here comes with big egos). It arrived in a generous wedge, in a retro-style metal pie dish adorned with slices of fig and a welcome blob of orangey creme fraiche. The tart was soft, creamy and really chocolatey. The creme fraiche cut through the richness of the tart, but I didn't taste much of the espresso. Perhaps it's one of those occasions where the espresso just brings out more of the chocolate flavour rather than the real 'coffee' taste.

The Verdict

Definitely a place to go back to. The portion sizes are generous, but perfectly balanced. You can comfortably fit in a starter, main and dessert to get the most out of the dining experience. The flavours in everything will knock you sideways, and the friendly, slick staff will always explain what the dishes are like or tell you more about unusual ingredients on the menu. The mixtures in decor - vintage, shabby chic and modern - give the restaurant a happily haphazard, 'off the cuff' feel, but the punchy flavour of the dishes and the polished attitude of the staff lets you know that you really are in for a special treat.

I went back with my five-year-old daughter for an after-school treat and she got to try out the 'viewfinder' kids menu and got a colouring page and some crayons. The best bit about this, if you are eating with children, is that they can get on with choosing their meals (photos shown on the viewfinder with a corresponding number) while you choose yours. It speeds up the process and reduces the hassle. Would totally recommend this place.

The cost for our three-course lunch was £64.30 for two, with a 750ml bottle of Chardonnay.
Visit the Jamie's Italian website for more details on the menu and locations.