Restaurant Review: Jamie’s Italian
In the universe of celebrity chefs, where planet-sized egos and intergalactic rivalries are the norm, Jamie Oliver is an exception. His Mockney accent, just-rolled-out-of-bed hair and a knack for dumbing down gourmet cooking for the masses have made him very likeable. They have also made this Essex native one of the wealthiest people in the UK. His empire includes television shows, cookbooks, kitchenware and a popular restaurant chain called Jamie’s Italian.
After years of speculation and several failed attempts, the Jamie Oliver phenomenon has finally reached Hong Kong. The chain’s second footprint in Asia – after a Singapore début a year ago – opened its doors to star struck fans last week. To accommodate the throngs of pilgrims, the restaurant reserves a good portion of its 200 seats for walk-in customers. So even if the online booking system tells you not to hold your breath until October, you can queue up like dozens of others for a chance to experience the Naked Chef’s magic touch.
Located on the scrubby Tang Lung Street, Jamie’s Italian boasts a striking 12,000 sq ft dining hall that will spirit you away from the backwater of Causeway Bay to London’s High Street. Designed by UK firm MBDS, the décor is refreshing, colourful and unpretentious – adjectives that are equally apt for the master chef and his recipes. The fresh pasta station, prosciutto bar, cocktail area and open kitchen all contribute to the restaurant's excitement and energy. In other words, the setup is a hit.
The food, however, is hit and miss. For appetisers, the fried risotto balls and fish plank come highly recommended. Both turn out to be more form than substance. The crab bruschetta and fried squid fare somewhat better, although the sourdough bread used for the bruschetta is stale and rock-hard. For mains, the sirloin steak with parsley butter is broiled to a perfect pink. It would have been a star if the cut hadn’t been so fatty. The biggest disappointment is the pasta, the Italian staple for which Oliver is best known. The tagliatelle, for instance, looks and tastes no better than what you would get at a high school cafeteria. The noodles are bland, overcooked and sitting in a pool of melted butter. But all is not lost, for desserts are the saving grace. The Epic Brownie’s warm, molten filling will soften the heart of even the harshest critic.
Jamie’s Italian is the most highly anticipated new restaurant to open here in recent years. Even though it is meant to serve everyday food at everyday prices (dinner averages at $400 per head with wine and $300 without), expectations are mile high. The Hong Kong flagship has so much going for it, but neither the dishes nor the ingredients live up to the reputation. Jamie Oliver needs to be more hands-on with his restaurants – he hasn't even bothered to visit the Hong Kong outpost – or else this 35-location chain may end up a mainstream franchise like the Olive Garden or Tony Roma's.
The views are the author's own.