Sunday, 11 April 2010

Jamie's Italian

Located on the riverside overlooking the canal in the Oracle Centre in Reading, the newest branch of Jamie's Italian is really striking. Spread over two floors, the centrepiece is a beautiful bubble chandelier. Decorated in casual Italian style, there are open kitchens on each floor, where you can see the chefs hard at work. They don't take reservations as their ethos is casual food when you want it. This does mean that at busy times you may have to queue up outside, but there are staff on hand and it is all very organised.

We were lucky when we visited yesterday as we managed to get in just before the rush. We had a very warm welcome and the efficient table allocation system and the friendly and smiling staff do everything they can to make your visit an enjoyable one. You are offered water the moment you arrive, and it comes from the tap in a carafe with ice. There is none of this nonsense about £4 bottles of water offered from a menu, something which I find very irritating in a country where the tap water is perfectly safe to drink and bottled water retails for so much less than that. I found the rest of the menu offered good value for money as well. The glass of house white I ordered turned out to be a very tasty unoaked Chardonnay. There is a good wine list, with something at all price points and a really good selection of soft drinks as well.

I was impressed by how knowledgeable the waiting staff are about the very extensive menu. From gorgeous antipasti to hearty pasta and intriguing and delicious main courses, there is truly something for everyone. There is also a good selection of specials displayed on boards throughout the restaurant. Although clearly a place that wants to serve as many covers as they can, there is never any feeling of being rushed, and those who want to linger over several courses are just as welcome as those who only want a quick bite to eat. I was particularly taken by a a scene at the table behind us, where the parents and friends enjoyed tapas while their little one sat fascinated, his back to the table and his chin in his hands as he watched the cooks in the kitchen.

The food is amazing - really inventive dishes freshly cooked and beautifully presented. I had the Chicken Caesar Salad, the salad served separately from the chicken which was laid on a wooden board. It was well cooked, tender and absolutely delicious.

I was also impressed by how the menu emphasised the traceability of the food. My chicken was free range, much of the seafood was from Cornwall and producers and sources were highlighted. This is clearly an operation that prides itself on ethical, traceable food sources, something which is so important in these days of intensive farming.

My husband chose one of the daily specials, a breast of lamb served on a bed of lentils which he said was amazing. I don't eat lamb, but I tasted the lentils and frankly I could have just eaten them by themselves, with a spoon!

Even the side dishes are intriguing. We chose the strangely coloured thyme roasted heirloom potatoes which were really interesting, and once I got over the idea of eating a purple potato, I really enjoyed them. It's nice to see a restaurant seeking out heirloom vegetable varieties and using them creatively.

This is casual, elegant dining for the 21st century, a fantastic marriage of Italian cafe society with well prepared, delicious value for money food in England. Well done to Jamie Oliver for his excellent concept, and well done to his staff for making it work so very well. This wonderful new venue is somewhere I definitely plan to become a regular customer.

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