The celebrity name that comes with this restaurant has caused more than a murmur on the streets. A hungry (but patient) Rachel Hanson tries out the new Jamie’s Italian in Perth.
Celebrity chef – is it a modern-day ‘chicken or the egg’? Once the elusive celebrity factor kicks in, what keeps the juggernaut going – the quality of the food or the celebrity status?
For some, it’s certainly the latter. But here, thankfully, it’s not all catchy jingles or verbal abuse. Although his boundless energy and sweet lisp are a part of his trademark, Jamie Oliver’s reputation rests squarely on the plate.
But to get to the plate, first you have to get through the door.
Whether it’s the personality or the produce, the months of talk swirling around the new Jamie’s Italian in Perth’s CBD have generated an honest-to-goodness foodie frenzy. After finally opening its doors in late March, tables are now booked up months in advance and walk-in wait times are upwards of two hours. So armed with comfy shoes and emergency snacks, my partner and I dutifully take our place in line.
As it turns out, the wait out front isn’t for a table… it is to put our name on the list to get a table. The infinitely patient and impossibly cheerful staff member, assigned to assuage the hungry public, informs us that it will take 30 minutes to get our names on the list, and another 90 minutes for a table (as it turns out, the reservation system can only hold 200 names – hence the lineup – but a system upgrade is underway).
A quick peek into the bar area – a stylish space with dark wood and polished concrete setting off the cool, sea green-tiled splashback behind the bar – and we decide to wait elsewhere. It wasn’t the crowds that made us retreat, it was the moreish-sounding bar snacks.
When you offer up ‘famous’ polenta chips ($8.50), pumpkin and smoked mozzarella nachos ($7) and crispy stuffed risotto balls ($9.50) before dinner, dinner will never happen. But ninety minutes later, our table is ready. A genius design means that though the room is very full, you don’t rub elbows with your neighbours. A large chandelier dominates the centre of the room, but it’s hardly the focal point. In fact it’s hard to find one since there’s so much to look at.
Fresh, golden brown loaves of bread (supplied by a local artisanal baker) are on display in baskets bolted to walls and pillars, while fresh produce, cured meats and lengths of garlic and chilli hang over the antipasto counter at the far end of the room. And though it’s expected, the product placement is surprisingly unobtrusive. But the most eye-catching of all is the army of staff (we lost count at 29) zipping around the floor like cheerful, over-caffeinated bees, adding to the joyous, exuberant vibe in the room.
Generous portions are the norm here and every dish is truly reasonably priced. It’s all a part of Jamie’s cult-like ethos of fresh, inexpensive, good-for-you food. But it makes decision-making difficult, so we lean towards a more-is-more ordering scheme. A complimentary basket of bread (yes, really!) appears as we order and the simple gesture is a clever one. Why did these go out of fashion, again?
There are three ‘planks’ on the antipasto menu – meat, fish and vegetables – that are priced per head. Set atop a couple of tins of diced tomatoes, our vegetable plank ($10 per person) is laden with goodies and stretches the complete length of the table. Tender balls of buffalo mozzarella; olives, caper berries and green chillies; aged pecorino with a smear of just-spicy-enough chilli jam on flat ‘music bread’; a salad of julienned root vegetables with mint and lemon; mini bruschetta; and a dish of marinated and chargrilled seasonal vegetables make for one serious starter.
Aside from the crunchy salad, which is a little on the wet side, each component is bright and punchy with the total effect of a scrummy mix of textures and flavours. To round out the first course, an order of crispy squid with garlicky mayo ($12) has a lovely crisp coating, but that doesn’t disguise its slightly rubbery texture.
Filled with slippery mushrooms and luscious ricotta, the wild mushroom ravioli ($19) is addictive. With all pastas made in-house, the hearty serve of perfectly al dente pasta swims in a meaty mushroom and tomato sauce with just the slightest kick of chilli. A little on the salty side perhaps, but as close to divine as pasta gets.
The creamy blue swimmer crab risotto ($26.50) is equally good. Instead of delicate slivers of crab flaked over the top, big hunks of rich meat are swirled throughout. Hits of lemon, chilli and salty, crispy samphire accompany every bite.
While the famous part might be overstating it, the crispy polenta chips are worth the wait. Woody rosemary and salty half-melted parmesan add superb flavour and unami to every bite – although a touch more rosemary would have made them perfect.
Despite our full bellies, it doesn’t seem right to order only one dessert each. As it turns out, too much of a good thing is just the right amount. The tiramisu ($9.50) comes with a twist of coffee-flavoured trifle and orange mascarpone, but works better on paper than on tastebuds. The lemon meringue pie ($8.50) – laced with limoncello, scattered with mint and candied lemon peel, and topped with a crispy pistachio brittle – is just the right balance of crunchy, soft, sweet and slightly acidic.
But the hero of dessert is the warm, gooey chocolate brownie ($9). A burst of amaretto contrasts nicely with tart raspberries and smooth vanilla ice-cream. Suffice to say, next time there will be only one dessert on the table.
And there will be a next time. Although the famous name might bring the hordes in initially, it’s the food that will keep them coming back.
The verdict: It’s exactly what you would expect from Jamie Oliver – fresh, enthusiastic, youthful and seriously delicious. It doesn’t have a restaurant chain feel, which is impressive.
The score: 16/20; great
We rated: The value-for-money portions and quality, and the innovative kids’ menu (the menu is cleverly displayed on a low-tech, immensely fun viewfinder).
We hated: The wait for a table – but this will only be a problem until Perthonians latch onto the Next Big Thing. In the interim, there are plenty of shops and bars nearby to make the wait for a table pass quickly.
Where:140 William Street,Perth,WA (in the CBD, next to the Perth underground train station).
Contact: (08) 9363 8600; jamieoliver.com/Italian/Australia/perth
The AT scoring system: Our review scores are based on a series of points, awarded across a number of categories including service, amenities, design, location, value, food and beverage offerings, and that elusive wow factor. 19-20 exceptional; 17-18 excellent; 15-16 great; 13-14 good; 11-12 satisfactory. Bias free: All AT reviews are conducted anonymously, and our writers pay their own way – so we experience exactly what you would.