Jamie's Italy was the first cookbook I ever owned. My mother, ever the rabid fan of all things Jamie, originally bought the book for herself when it came out in 2005. I soon became clear however it was I who really took to actually cooking from it, and she told me that when I left home the book was mine to keep. While my favourite cookbooks these days are more challenging works by people like Heston Blumenthal, David Chang, Daniel Humm and Ben Shewry, I cannot stress how important Jamie's Italy was for me in becoming a better home cook - my ability to improvise a pasta dish out of what is in the fridge or make Carbonara or Trapanese Pesto from memory is indebted to the lessons I learnt cooking from Jamie's Italy.
So it might come as a surprise then that I didn't rush to Jamie's Italian when it opened at 140 William St last year. Granted, Alissa and I were saving for a honeymoon at the time, but I'm not one who enjoys having my time wasted lining up for a restaurant when a meal of equivalent quality can be had elsewhere with less hassle. Tales of people having to wait over an hour to a few hours for a seating made no sense to me, so I was glad to see the restaurant's reservations had calmed down somewhat when I decided to book a mid-July dinner for a joint celebration of my parents' birthdays (which are conveniently a month apart). As a repeat customers of Jamie's my parents were thrilled with the choice.
Even with a mid-week booking, there was a slight though not unreasonable wait for a free table - something I put down more to people lingering a bit too long after finishing their meal rather than a mistake that was restaurant's fault per se. While we waited, I got a chance to soak in the restaurant's buzzy ambiance and fashionable juxtapositions such as a chandelier incongruously placed in a room with an otherwise casual and trendy warehouse aesthetic.
While we were eyeing off one of the booths, we were happy to be seated towards the rear of the restaurant with a good view of the rear bar and the kitchen.
With a well priced and decidedly accessible menu, the small but considered wine list shared a similar philosophy, showing a strong preference for food friendly Italian varietals. We went with the Benevelli Piero Numero 3 Langhe Rosso 2011, a 70/30 Barbera/Nebbiolo blend. It may not have been the best Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo blend I've had, but it was very good for the price point. With vintages coming and going, I recall seeing an actual Barolo on the list at one time, so Italian wine fans should keep an eye out for updates to their wine list.
Seasoned Jamie's Italian diners, my parents already had favourites that they just had to order, starting with the Fish Plank, consisting of thin, crispy 'music bread' and pecorino with chilli jam, an assortment of pickles, bruschetta with smoked mackerel pate, a crunchy root vegetable salad, beetroot and citrus cured salmon, shellfish and fritto misto. Pecorino can sometimes be too hard and too intense to be eaten as-is, but the type used here was perfectly suited for this tasting tray. The root vegetable salad was okay if not exactly anything special, but the beetroot and citrus cured salmon was a definite highlight. The addition of beetroot's sweetness tempered the traditional acidity of the citrus cure, and imbued the salmon with a colour reminiscent of strawberries. The mussels were also really impressive, with the flavours of the white wine, garlic, parsley and chives well integrated into a delicious whole. Finally, the fritto misto was an enjoyable if not particularly noteworthy version of this classic fried dish.
With the dinner being at the height of truffle season we just had to order the Posh Chips, even if the truffle flavour came from truffle oil instead of the real thing. The flavour of truffle oil and a grating of parmesan gifted the chips with a pleasing umami quality, with the chips themselves seemingly made by the double cooked method from the Jamie's Kitchen cookbook. The result was a chip with a nice and crunchy exterior while being soft and fluffy on the inside.
The famous Polenta Chips were possibly even more impressive, and somehow were even more crispy on the outside while being melt in your mouth soft within. Even without the blue chip umami flavour of truffle to fall back on, the rosemary, salt and parmesan seasoned the chips well, and this was the kind of simple yet addictive dish you could scoff down the whole bowl of before realising what you'd done.
Rounding out our starters, the Crab and Avocado Bruschetta was nice enough, though in hindsight there were other items that I think would have been more impressive. That said, the blue swimmer crab meat was nice and juicy, and the bread was fresh and crusty. While the chilli, herbs and apple matchsticks on top were nice additions, I did agree with Alissa's appraisal that we could have done with more avocado. Perhaps the Crispy Squid will be a better order next time.
With the starters finished, it was time to move onto our mains. After some deliberation, I had decided to go with one of their current specials -Tagliatelle al Funghi, which consisted of house made tagliatelle tossed through a rustic Swiss brown mushroom, radicchio and parmesan sauce and finished with breadcrumbs - plus I requested some Tuscan Truffles on the side to beef up the already mushroom-dominated flavour. By itself, the dish had all the hallmarks of a good, creamy mushroom sauce and the quality of the fresh pasta could not be faulted. Adding the truffles on top took it to the next level of deliciousness, and I was glad that I asked for the addition. My only criticism was that they used imported truffles with truffle oil added to bolster the flavour - odd when you consider that Perth was in the middle of Manjimup Truffle madness at the time of eating. Price must have been a factor, however as Perth diners become increasingly acquainted with the wonders of our local truffle industry, I'd love to see Jamie's get on board too with a Manjimup Truffle special. Next year perhaps?
Alissa decided to go with the Wild Boar and Porcini Lasagne - slow cooked wild boar, porcini, mascarpone, herbs and wine baked in an oozy white sauce with tomato and parmesan. This was a thoroughly rich and hearty dish, owing to the flavour of the boar meat, the strong but well integrated flavour of porcini mushrooms and the creaminess of the sauces within. As with my tagliatelle, the lasagne sheets themselves were made and cooked perfectly. While less impressive than the Tagliatelle al Funghi, the result was still a delicious dish, and a very good lasagne. Considering that Alissa and I decided to share, we were happy to have tried both and for neither of us to have been stricken with dish envy.
My parents also decided to share their mains, the first of which was the Jamie's Italian Signature Porchetta - slow-cooked free-range Australian pork belly filled with herbs, garlic & spices with fennell crackling & watercress. Cooked for 12 hours, the skin had developed a lovely crispness, and any fat had rendered down to the point that the meat was not overly fatty, while still have a delicious, unctuous moistness to the flavoursome swine flesh. The stuffing came in a crisp ball on top, and was a lovely melange of Italian herbs and nuts that positively overflowed with rustic Italian flavours.
The other main was the Bone-In Prime Strip Loin - 350g of pasture-fed Aussie Black Angus bone-in strip loin, served with wild mushrooms and Peppery Endives. Being a pusher of all things truffle, I insisted that my parents went for the truffle butter and shaved truffles that were an optional extra (and where I got the idea for the truffle on my pasta from). My mother described the dish as being buttery and creamy, with the meat itself being a very moist medium rare that was flavoursome and melt in your mouth juicy. With the additional decadence of truffles and truffle butter on top, it was the kind of dish perfect for beef lovers such as my parents.
While we were very full, Alissa insisted that I just had to try the Tutti Frutti Lemon Meringue Pie with Limoncello and Crunchy Pistachio Brittle - a dessert she had when she came to Jamie's with her parents only a week earlier. I have to say I was extraordinarily impressed; the lemon curd was perfectly set with the right balance of sweetness and tartness, the pastry at the bottom was baked well and the meringue itself was perfectly fluffy, and nicely toasted on top. The cheffy touch of candied lemon peel and the pistachio brittle finished it off beautifully. This was possibly the best Lemon Meringue Pie I've had, and I think no trip to Jamie's Italy is complete without this as the sweet finale.
Wanting something light, my father went with the 'lovely wobbly' Creamy Panna Cotta, served with compote of seasonal fruits. I love panna cotta and I love berries, so for me this was a winning combination that certainly appealed to my father too. We were impressed with the very generous amount of berries, and the simple but really nice vanilla panna cotta was as wobbly as the menu suggested. Granted, it was not as impressive as the extraordinary Lemon Meringue Pie, however for those wanting something a bit low key, this would be an excellent choice.
The Verdict: Excellent
With Jamie Oliver's superstar levels of fame and his cult-like following, Jamie's Italian has probably been - and to some extent, remains - one of the most hyped restaurants in Perth. For me, it lived up to my expectations - their dedication to fresh pasta is commendable and delivered the expected excellent results, while the Polenta Chips and the Lemon Meringue Pie in particular were very impressive indeed. I was expecting exactly the kind of food Jamie Oliver cooks - relatively accessible, not overly fussy, rustic but delicious - and that's exactly what Jamie's Italian delivered in spades, with a price point that seemed right on the money for a lower mid price point casual restaurant. It's not fine dining - that's never been Jamie Oliver's claim to fame, and it would be unfair to approach the restaurant with such expectations - but as a casual and trendy inner city eatery, it's good Italian food with or without the Naked Chef's branding.