Jamie’s Italian

Reading’s branch of Jamie’s Italian closed on July 2018, I’ve left this review up for posterity.

January, so far, has been the Month of Eating Differently here at Edible Reading. It started with me revisiting the A4074 and discovering that not all “Pack” based pubs are the same (thank goodness). Then I went even further out of town to eat top notch sushi in Windsor. For the third review of the year it seems only right that I come back to Reading and, even more, that I tuck into food at one of our ubiquitous chains – just to prove that it isn’t only about the independent out of town places.

I picked Jamie’s because it feels like a restaurant that cares about ingredients more than your average chain; there’s always been a fair amount of focus on fresh seasonal ingredients and interesting flavours at Jamie’s, and as chains go it’s not huge compared to some of its Oracle neighbours (only 37 branches according to their website, compared to 90 Bella Italias and a whopping 430 Pizza Expresses, for example). On top of that I made a promise, a resolution if you like, that I would eat one vegetarian main every month and it seemed like Jamie’s would be one of the better options for that – after all, good Italian recipes with all those fresh ingredients barely need meat at all, right?

I can’t quite remember what Chili’s, the previous restaurant in this space, looked like. All I really recall is the 6 foot plastic chilli suspended from the ceiling, covered in a thick layer of dust. Jamie’s, in comparison, is clean, smart and very contemporary: the middle of the restaurant is all concrete floors and tin chairs but round the edge of the room it’s much more inviting, with red leather banquettes looking out across the other diners. A bit like being on Dragon’s Den but without Evan Davis’ irritating recaps (why does he sum things up mere seconds after they’ve happened? So annoying! But I digress).

It’s still a dry – and increasingly long – January for me so I tucked into an elderflower and pomegranate pressé while picking from the menu. That was when it dawned on me that I was going to have to go through with the vegetarian thing and that some of you, for any of a variety of reasons, have to look at a menu and mentally cross things out every time you go out to eat (for that I can honestly say that I salute you).

To start I had the baked chestnut mushrooms on crispy music bread with smoked mozzarella, thyme and Parmesan, and in an attempt to stick to the vegetarian side of the menu I swapped out the Parmesan for another hard cheese not made with rennet (although I didn’t check whether the mozzarella was suitable for vegetarians so this might have been a waste of time).

It was a surprisingly hard dish to describe – layers of music bread on the bottom with an intricate mosaic of thinly sliced mushrooms on top, dusted with the cheese, the middle section rich with gooey smoked mozzarella. I’d almost sum it up as middle class nachos, except that Jamie’s Italian has already beaten me to it by describing another dish on their menu as “Italian nachos” (crispy fried ravioli, in fact). But that’s what it resembled most – crispy music bread at the sides and the central section soggy with juices from the mushrooms and softened by the melted cheese.

Did I like it? I’m still not sure even now. It was like a book you admire without enjoying it: more interesting than it was tasty. It was probably a less satisfying way to eat mushrooms than the myriad of other options on the menu – stuffed into arancini, heaped on bruschetta, tumbled into fettucine – options which, as I worked my way through this dish, I couldn’t help wishing I’d ordered instead.

Mushroommusic

The caponata bruschetta, on the other hand, was as pretty as it was tasty. The caponata itself was lovely – the rich, smoky aubergines were diced and mixed in with tomatoes and pine nuts with a sprinkling of grated ricotta on top. I love the earthy, slightly sweet flavour of caponata and this was a very good one. The bread it came on was less of a success, being tough and difficult to cut (I ended up tearing it with my knife and fork instead). A bit more olive oil or less time under the grill might have been better. Sitting on top of the dish were a couple of small red chillis, barely cooked with their tops chopped off. I genuinely couldn’t fathom what they were doing there – they looked small enough to be properly explosive and I couldn’t see how they fitted in at all. I wondered if it might be some kind of homage to Chili’s – that was the only decent explanation I could come up with. I didn’t eat them.

Caponatabruschetta

The vegetarian main courses at Jamie’s, according to their website, amount to two – one pasta, and one salad. There are more if you’re prepared to forego the Parmesan, but the menu doesn’t make that clear so you’re relying on the waiter (“we don’t have a vegetarian menu”, he said, “but I can talk you through it”). Pasta in tomato sauce sounded pretty humdrum, and I’d already had mushrooms, so I went for the superfood salad, thinking that anything with the word “super” in the title couldn’t be all bad. Besides, the menu made it sound like it contained so much stuff: avocado; shaved fennel; candied beetroot; broccoli; cheese; pomegranate; seeds; and a “fennel blossom Sicilian harissa”. It just sounded like a party in a bowl, and I was genuinely interested to see what turned up.

What the menu doesn’t tell you is that that description suggests that all the ingredients get equal billing, and they don’t. So I really enjoyed the sweet chunks of candied beets. They were both delicious. I liked the shaved fennel, although it had been very finely shaved indeed and got a little lost. The two smallish spears of broccoli were just dandy. The avocado, served on top, was very nice – flashed under a grill I’d guess, from the lines on top, and ever so slightly warm. Where the stone had been there was a little reservoir with cottage cheese on it, and the smallest blob of harissa, which may have involved fennel blossom in some way but was just generic hot stuff.

But really, this was about the rest of it, including many things the menu neglected to mention. So yes, there were lentils and some pumpkin and sesame seeds in there, and the occasional bit of pomegranate, and lots of mint leaves (because Jamie’s loves putting mint in everything). But there was also a lot of quinoa, along with plenty of what looked like stubby grains of wild rice but, having researched it, may have been black barley. All that amounted to a big stodgy pile of heavy going, with nowhere near enough flavour to elevate it from chore to treat. When I told a vegetarian friend about this dish, she said “personally, if they’d said there was quinoa in it I’d never have ordered it”, which pretty much hits the nail on the head. Really, it was like the contents of one of those square plastic tubs you buy for lunch from M&S in an attempt to pretend to be a better person than you really are; if this was a party in a bowl, it was the kind where you started looking at your watch half an hour in because all the fun people had already left.

Supersalad

The other main was one of the specials – an “amazing ragu of pork with tomatoes, chilli, garlic and loads of herbs tossed through home made casarecce pasta” (I’m quoting from the blackboard here, so the trumpet blowing is Jamie’s and not mine). I was expecting a bowl of pasta with a thick sauce of tomato and pork in roughly equal measure, but what in fact arrived was a bowl of pasta with a lot of shredded pork in it (and I mean a lot: the meat was generous to a fault). All the other ingredients were present as described, but apart from being slightly watery there was no discernible sauce. This was just a meat and carbs dish: none of your five-a-day here. On top of the heap of pork was a spoonful of herby, lemony breadcrumbs which really did lift the dish but it was just one spoonful, and a little more would have given the dish a lot more oomph. As it was, you couldn’t fault it for quantity but overall I’m afraid it bored me and I couldn’t finish it. Nor could I face dessert afterwards, even if their chocolate brownie is, according to the menu at least, “epic” (I can hear the strains of that trumpet again).

Porkragu

Service was decent. The chap serving us was friendly enough and happy to pick out the vegetarian options but had the disconcerting habit of saying thank you after every single item we ordered, something which started to feel robotic very quickly. I wasn’t feeling a lot of love. I also wasn’t feeling the warmth, as there seemed to be a draught coming from the back of the room, whipping round our ankles. When we asked early on if there was a door open in the kitchen we were told that this was just the colder part of the room and that the other tables they had available wouldn’t be much better. On a freezing winter’s day in January I thought this was a very poor show, especially as it got even chillier by the time our mains came (another homage to Chili’s, perhaps?). The total bill for two courses and a soft drink each for two was forty pounds. That felt like reasonable value for the food, even if the experience wasn’t anything to write home about.

After the last two reviews, writing this feels like a bit of a comedown. I know I don’t need to eat out of town to get good food but when the better chains, which to me includes Jamie’s, let me down it can seem like the Oracle doesn’t have a lot to offer (appropriately the best of the Oracle’s restaurants, Cote and Tampopo, are right at the edge: it’s almost as if they’re trying to break away and escape). I feel especially sad for the vegetarians out there, because I think they should be entitled to expect better from a restaurant like this – so for vegetarians looking at a menu this size and seeing such a short list of suitable options I can only say sorry. I haven’t found an amazing place with loads of attractive meat-free choices that you’ll be rushing to visit. Not yet. But it’s only January.

Jamie’s Italian – 6.7
Unit 1, Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9070808

http://www.jamieoliver.com/italian/restaurants/reading

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18 thoughts on “Jamie’s Italian

  1. Such a shame, you totally picked the wrong place to have a vegetarian meal! The meat plank as a started at Jamie’s is soooo good and the quality of the salami and cheese is way better than the quality of produce at your average chain.
    As for mains, you should stick to what they are good at – pasta! Their prawn linguini is excellent.
    There are indeed some let-downs on the menu (I mean, you could have tossed some veg in a bowl yourself at home for sure) so that’s why you go for the more exciting options!

    I highly recommend you return and indulge in a meat and cheese fest 😉 And, have the barbera d’asti wine, which is amazing.

  2. JasmineT

    Agreed it’s a bit of a shame – I can hardly say Jamie’s ranks in my favourite restaurants, but it’s always been a safe option for me – I know I can get a good dinner and a nice wine there. I’ve often found their specials are actually better than their menu items in particular, and whenever I’ve gone I’ve found the staff almost too solicitous. Maybe just an off night for them? Hopefully going off-duty might yield better results!

  3. Martin

    Really not the best place to have chosen vegetarian food. We went to the St. George and Dragon in Wargrave for lunch today and I had the most delicious roasted veg tart – give it a go if you are looking for nice vegetarian food. Also good is the veggie food at The Greyhound and The Plowden Arms.

    My motto is to not go out with veggie food in mind, but if there is something veggie which sounds nice, the chef has probably put a bit of extra effort in to it because they can’t just rely on meat to make the meal. An interesting sounding veggie dish trumps an interesting sounding meat dish 9 times out of 10 in my opinion.

    And unless you are veggie for ethical reasons, eat the parmesan.

    1. Those are really useful tips and I’ll bear them in mind. I wanted the vegetarian main at the Pack Saddle earlier in the month, but they weren’t doing it so it wasn’t to be. I did avoid the Parmesan because I wanted to make sure what I ordered would be suitable for all vegetarians, but I know there are a wide variety of different views and reasons for not eating meat. Still, it’s my first go at this…

  4. Ben

    It seems a bit unfair to review a restaurant with a no alcohol and no meat policy isn’t it? Not a biggest fan of the restaurant but doesn’t really seem like a ‘like-for-like review. Love the blog though so hopefully just a constructive observation!

    1. All constructive feedback’s welcome! But it’s not ever really about the booze, ultimately I’m reviewing the food so I’m not sure the lack of wine is that relevant. I’ve reviewed a fair few places where I haven’t drunk, either because I’m driving or it’s a lunch place. And to put this in perspective it’s only one vegetarian main… The other one was still packed with meat. But I think I kind of know where you’re coming from. Anyway, it’s only going to happen this month because then I’m back on the sauce. I’ve missed red wine a lot. And gin. And cider. And dessert wine. Not counting the days at all, honest.

  5. Kate

    I really enjoyed the vegetarian-based review – it’s all very well only doing reviews of veggie options when they look exciting, but without reviews like this to balance them out, that gives a somewhat overly positive picture to any vegetarians seeking a good place to eat. My experience as a vegetarian has unfortunately been similar at Jamie’s in the past – I haven’t been impressed at all, and information on how great the meat board is won’t make me visit it! There’s a bit of a lack of restaurant reviewers in general who focus specifically on trying to include veggie options regularly rather than just on occasions when they can be guaranteed to be excellent, which makes it trickier to work out where will suit me – so I appreciate the effort!

    1. Thanks Kate. I’m trying to pick places that should do something interesting and I genuinely thought Jamie’s would be it, because good Italian food doesn’t need to lean on meat to deliver great dishes. And when I picked the superfood salad I didn’t do it to prove a point, I did it because on paper it sounded fantastic – and I still think if it had been differently balanced, better dressed and less stodgy it might well have been.

      Doing this has been a real eye opener. It’s quite an experience looking at a menu and knowing you can only have a handful of things on there. Here’s to next month.

    2. I think the better places for vegetarians are probably Asian or Indian. House of Flavours, Yo Sushi and Wagamamas are good. Also the Homemade Burger company offers a decent range of veg burgers.

      As the husband of a vegetarian it can certain be tricky, and it is must be pretty frustrating to have a “choice” of at most one or two dishes, although things do seem a bit better than a few years(when a lot of pubs just seemed to do a vegetable lasagna).

  6. Dani T

    I’ve just discovered your site after a very disappointing Market Superfood salad made me google reviews on ot to see if I’d missed something.
    Great site and spot on review! A big bowl of letdown was what I got at Jamie’s!

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