Tasty takes on regional Italian dishes was my enduring memory when last eating at a Jamie Oliver restaurant. That was a decade ago, and the restaurant was his brilliant Fifteen in London’s Old Street. Since then we’d moved out of Hackney to live off & on in Italy before finally joining the pre-school parade of St Albans. Going out to eat ‘Italian’ hasn’t been something we do with any frequency, partly as it’s difficult to manage our expectations and qualify what is served as ‘Italian’ when compared, possibly unfairly, to our experiences of fine, cheap dining in Italy! So when the PR team of one of my food activist champions invited me to try lunch at Jamie’s St Albans I was definitely curious…
Jamie’s Italian in St Albans is based at what used to be The Bell pub. It had been refurbished, still retaining a hint of its previous incarnation as a high-street carriage inn, but with an extended airy modern dining room, which can seat 150. We visited on a half-term Monday for an early lunch and the restaurant got progressively busier; looking around the room it was obviously a draw to local business people and multi-generational family diners, so I would advise booking. The space was cosy, but still light and our table never felt hemmed in, with space enough for my little boy to get down and have his token run and spin around mid-lunch.
We tried a range of dishes from across the regular menu, specials and the new ‘Super Lunch’ menu. The latter costs a reasonable £10.95 for 2 courses with enough options to easily satisfy those with particular dietary needs.
Antipasti at Jamie’s
From the Special Lunch menu, as a starter, we ordered the Fritto Misto which we were really impressed with. The fish was succulent; squid tender and all scrumptious in their feather-light fennel tempura style batter. Personally I’d say their delicate flavours should be enjoyed solo, but for those that like a dip the dish is served with a rich lemon garlic aioli.
I had plumped for the roasted squash bruschetta as a starter with a slight apprehension at “sticky balsamic” but the dish was a beautiful medley of seasonal flavours. I was delighted to taste my favourite bitter Italian greens, Cime di Rape served in the dish which, alongside the lemony ricotta, balanced the sweetness. Perhaps the squash rind could have been taken off to have a truly hands-on bruschetta eating experience but on a dreary winter’s day, this dish was heartily appreciated not just for taste but its burst of colours.
Sustainable Special’s Board
I almost ordered the Sausage Ragu which I’d had eaten at the pub in Saffron Waldon run by Jamie’s parents, and which I’d even started recreating at home – who had made it first, father or son? I plumped instead for the Sea Trout Special, sustainably pan-fried fish served on a ‘nduja infused’ risotto with fat clams. Portion control was healthy so if you only wanted to go down the 1-course route you wouldn’t end up hungry mid-afternoon.
My partner had the Porchetta which he found very moreish. The ‘apple sauce’ worked like a salve on the unexpected chili from within the herby porchetta. Never be deceived by the appearance of a balsamic glazed root veggie, despite these looking overdone they were sweetly divine with just the right amount of chewiness.
The Tagliatelle with Truffle was a tad disappointing, which was a little sad as it was our little boy’s favourite dish after spending his formative years in Italy and not something he gets made at home with any frequency! The truffle butter sat like a puddle under the tagliatelle rather than cloak the pasta, the black truffle shavings a little too dry and woody to do justice to just how good this simple dish can be.
Why Eat at Jamie’s
I’ll definitely go back to eat at Jamie’s St Albans, and for a budget business lunch take advantage of the ‘Super Lunch’. It may not be a restaurant to recapture the more mystical dishes of Italian regional cuisine that we all praise whilst away, and have such difficulty sourcing when back home, but it is tasty ‘Italian’ comfort food which speaks to the English ‘palate’ and is on trend, ‘nduja popping up with regularity on the menu and specials. Staff are very friendly, accommodating and service prompt without feeling that you are hurried. Children will love the fantastic array of toys and aids to encourage them to discuss foods, even the machine that makes the pasta is a big draw for them and helps win the struggle of tempting them in to try something different.