So I don’t really write restaurant reviews. I find them kind of terrifying – what if I’m being unreasonable? I also find them impossible to write – foodstuff 1 contrasted with foodstuff 2 in such a way that my everything turned inside out and yum happened. Yadda yadda.
So let’s be clear, hey. I am no food reviewer. I don’t get personally invited along to try the new menu at the latest hip restaurant opened by a global megastar.
But still, you know, I’m into pasta. I enjoy eating it coated in delicious ragu that has been simmering on the stovetop for 10 hours, and at some point in my vivacious youth I visited Italy and ate Real Italian Food. I also watch the television from time to time, so when Jamie’s Italian opened in Adelaide about a month ago I was naturally curious.
As you may have noticed, Jamie Oliver is kind of a Big Deal in the food world. People go crazy for the guy. His ethos is focused around eating ‘real’ food that’s in season and has a local flavour. He picked a fight with McDonalds and has spearheaded some noteworthy public health campaigns designed to address the growing obesity epidemic. Most of his recipes feature the prefix “The best” as in “The best roast chicken” or “The best glass of water”. His techniques frequently involve reminding malnourished English people that they are allowed to eat green things in between soggy fish and chips. His street cred is pretty high for these reasons, and probably rightly so.
I read early reviews with interest. The cult of celebrity that seems to surround chefs at the moment has pretty much reached saturation point, so I was skeptical about early reports that suggested Jamie’s Italian was ‘amazing!’ When you look at the restaurant website you are promised “Jamie-style food that makes the most of fresh, seasonal ingredients”. Reading that, it was hard to get the recent Woolworths saga out of my mind – small Australian producers were required to ‘voluntarily’ contribute tens of thousands of dollars to a Woolworths/Jamie Olvier marketing campaign that would yield little to no benefit for them. When I also heard that the restaurant’s wine list featured zero South Australian wines and that local producers had been turned away in favour of imported products, my skepticism grew rapidly.
After a somewhat flaccid ‘public outcry’ concerned citizens were assured that there were in fact two local South Australian wines available for purchase and that, because the restaurant was still on soft launch, we could expect to see this issue rectified ‘ASAP’.
With that in mind, I decided I needed to see it for myself or I would be forever wondering, living in a near-constant state of FOMO*. I dutifully booked for several weeks out from opening in the hopes that any niggling issues would have had time to iron out. After what felt like several weeks of waiting it finally came time to ‘experience’ Jamie’s Italian for myself. We caught up with a few friends before dinner and most of them had already been through for a quick meal at lunchtime or a cheeky dinner on a weeknight. The reviews weren’t great:
‘The decor is pretty cool, but the food is nothing special – make sure you check out the toilets though, they are great!’
‘Yeah, I would describe it as a bit overpriced but perfectly, um, adequate as far as quality goes’
‘Not sure I would rush back, but it was ok, there was nothing wrong with it.’
Despite these ominous remarks, we dutifully made our way for our 8pm Friday night booking. I’m sorry to say that we won’t be hurrying back.
Having now had a few days to think about our experience, I can safely say that my initial negative impression was not an overreaction, nor was it the result of my pre-existing skepticism. Here’s why:
- It’s a soulless corporate monster. Seriously. There were, like, eleventy billion tables in there, crammed full of people instagramming their meals and ‘being seen’ in Adelaide’s hottest new restaurant. The menus referred to autumnal fare (it’s spring), there was hideous muzak playing in the toilets and don’t even get me started on the wine list (ok, I’ll get to it in a minute). Forget intimate dining, this is dining is a large-ish warehouse with cool décor.
- The staff all walked around with painfully plastic smiles on their faces, nervously returning to our table over and over again (in pairs, might I add) to ask us how things were going, eager for our approval. At one point a waitress arrived and asked us how our food was, then what we ordered and then what we liked best. It was truly irritating, but then again maybe I’m just an old grump. I prefer my wait staff to be polite, friendly, but not my ‘friend’ – these guys and girls had quite clearly been indoctrinated with a corporate facsimile of hip, slightly over-familiar chatter which ended up being awkward and frequently interrupted us. It was not a situation where we felt like we could just continue to talk about whatever we were discussing without feeling that we were somehow being rude to the looming wait staff when they appeared. All the while there was a slight edge, like we were about to be told about the wonders of Dianetics or asked to buy Tupperware.
- In my opinion, the wine list issue has absolutely not been addressed in any meaningful way. When the overly eager waitress appeared at my table to take my order I asked if they had any South Australian wines available. She quickly replied that yes, they have a ‘special’ South Australian wine list featuring two ‘handpicked’ South Australian wines. It was again apparent that we were witnessing a display of corporate policy – I have little doubt the wait staff had been specifically trained to deal with unreasonable South Australians who had the nerve to ask for some of our internationally recognised swill instead of Jamie’s Finest Bulk Italian Vino. So, I was offered “A white and a red”. I was offered no further information about these options, nor was it made clear to me that by ordering ‘the red’ I was to be charged $16 a glass (I had two). Pretty much double what they were charging for the imported stuff which apparently comes out of a carton *il gaspio!*. My other half was similarly unimpressed with the beer options – with a perfectly good internationally recognised brewery down the road (Coopers: disclaimer, my FIL works there) and numerous excellent craft breweries in South Australia, there were two generically over hopped Australian efforts and a couple of dismal Italian beers. As P says, the Italians get food but they apparently don’t get beer. As with the wine, the Australian beers were also strangely anonymous – on the menu they weren’t named, just “available” as though they were the equivalent of a kids’ meal or gluten free pasta.
- The food was kind of average. Scratch that, it was extremely average. I’ve actually never sent a meal back, is that weird? I’ve had some average meals, and there was this one time in the US when my burger was more ‘charred’ than I would have liked, but no I’ve never felt the urge to send something back. Despite the curiously attentive service, we received our mains after an inexplicably long delay (long enough to provoke an apology from one of the service staff) and, well, they were the saltiest things I have ever eaten. Italian sausage pasta and a spaghetti with tomato sauce – not rocket science, right? Well, as my dining companion remarked to me ‘this is the saltiest thing in the known universe. I have very recent experience eating an actual bowl of salt and this comes pretty close**.’ Suffice to say one dish was quite salty and the other bordered on inedibly salty and watching the kitchen, it was clear to us that there wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to what was going out. Try as we might we could see no evidence of anyone tasting anything before it was served. Most dishes seemed to be partially cooked, then jammed in a gigantic warming oven for an indeterminate period of time before being brought out. We thought very hard about sending it back but didn’t mainly because I feared upsetting the poor waitress who was clearly very, very concerned about us having an ‘amazing’ time. To be fair we had a prosciutto salad which was pretty tasty, and as one would expect the starters were also acceptable – the usual range of arancini, gnocchi and so on.
So, what is Jamie’s Italian? In my opinion, it’s basically expensive fast food. Well, certainly not ‘fast’ in a literal sense, but ‘fast’ in the sense of generic, easily replicated and impersonal. Look, it really is very lovely in there what with the multi-million dollar fit out in an old bank. The toilets are undeniably exciting as toilets go (although they seem to have fake antique cisterns on the wall which are purely decorative… really?). I get that. But based on my dining experience there was nothing obviously ‘seasonal’ or ‘unique’ about the food you get. It was cranked out of a production line kitchen using cheap, readily available (and, seemingly, frequently imported) ingredients. There are over 40 franchised restaurants around the world now and based on my inspection of them online they all seem to have a similar menu and are all serving similar food. Which is basically the idea behind McDonalds.
If you’re ok with that and don’t mind paying between $13.00 and $28.50 (at the time of writing) for a bowl of mass-produced pasta then you should definitely go and check it out. If not, then I can strongly recommend other quality establishments such as Andre’s Cucina, Lucias, Pranzo or Auge where you will get a seriously ‘amazing’ bowl of pasta and dine comfortably in the knowledge that you’re in a restaurant where the focus is on absolute quality, working with local growers and actual seasonal produce. For what we paid, I strongly feel that there are vastly better options for Italian in Adelaide – and most of the alternatives don’t feature the ‘cult of personality’ vibe that permeated Jamie’s.
On top of that, it is virtually impossible to justify importing vast quantities of wine and beer to a place like South Australia. We may not make much here these days, but we do have a brilliant line in world-class alcohol. It would have been trivially easy for Jamie’s Italian to offer a great range of quality local wines and beers, and it was a bit sad to see a place packed to the rafters with Australians putting away litres of Italian stuff instead (my other half insists that I mention again that Italian beer frequently tastes like something squeezed out of a cat). Adelaide is doing it tough, and a golden opportunity for Jamie’s Italian to push our local wine and beer industries has gone begging.
Is it terrible? No. Would I be rushing back? Probably not.
* FOMO = Fear of Missing Out. All the kids are saying it, apparently.
** Don’t ask!
Pictured: The very famous toilets.