I am not surprised that Jamie Oliver’s restaurant empire has collapsed into administration. I reviewed his flagship restaurant on Piccadilly, Barbecoa, in 2017, and damned it because the food was bad and the atmosphere non existent. (Well, it was almost empty; you cannot create joy in a void).
I knew Oliver was in trouble before that when I ate – reluctantly, but not everyone is a food critic – at Jamie’s Italian in Victoria in late 2016.
It was, like Barbecoa, queasily large, the food was bad, and, again, it was almost empty. The punters may have been buying Oliver’s cookery books but they weren’t dining at his restaurants. Or if they did, they only went once, and there is no lower praise.
I reviewed Jamie’s Italian in Soho for The Spectator in 2015, and found a lazy venture – a restaurant coasting on a television name. He would never have got away with it at the River Cafe, where he worked when he was young. Perhaps Oliver’s woes will teach famous chefs to be less greedy for money, and to think more of the punters who are paying for it all; for the £120 or so a family of four would spend at Jamie’s Italian, they could dine at home like kings – for a week. Here is my original review:
Jamie’s Italian is squeezed into the Devonshire Arms on Denman Street, Soho, borne on the duplicitous winds of TV shows and book deals. It’s an odd fit, like a Flump meeting Dante. The Devonshire was a pub at the end of the world, a Victorian dystopia made of violence and despair; it smelt of fighting and bad food. Now Jamie Oliver – an aghast teenager running to fat even as he declares war on the Turkey Twizzler and the civilisation that wrought it- has sucked it into his empire of Jamie’s Italians (there are forty-one, from Aberdeen to Gatwick), installed a roof terrace (empty) and written “Established 2014” over the door.
At first glance, Jamie has done nothing to the Devonshire Arms. It is still a grim London pub, now struck down with a late term identity crisis, like an elderly woman forced at gun-point into hot pants. He has not even removed the signs that tell the very drunk that they are in the Devonshire Arms, rather than New York, or a swimming pool, or hell. There are green leatherette banquettes, brown plastic walls masquerading as wood panelling and a hideous air conditioning system hanging, like a dead TV alien, from the ceiling.
Explore further, however, and learn what new horrors planning restrictions can summon in a Victorian pub than has been bought by a fake revolutionary chef expanding, in every sense, too fast. There are metal staircases and crazy art to invoke edge when edge there is none; Oliver, for all his anti-establishment posturing, is a conservative force. Women who feed their children chips through the barbed wire at school know him as their enemy. There are five cramped and sweaty floors of it; a 440 cover restaurant lurks behind the signage. It is a Tardis.
The service is a tribute to Oliver’s TV schtick – chaotic love-bombing. The waiter sprints through the specials, waving his arms, as if conducting antipasti. Presently he brings Jamie’s Ultimate Plank (what to say?) – a small tree held up by two empty tins of tomato puree. It carries a series of mediocre cheeses and meats and salads, selling itself by size, improbability and size again; it is very masculine, obliviously pornographic, and I do not want to eat it.
Floored by the plank, so to speak, we progress through the enormous menu; enormous, in menus, usually bespeaks anxiety and, in this case, confusion about geography and provenance. Because Oliver likes to place the word “Italian” before dishes that are not Italian, as if wishing them Italian will make them so: for instance there is Crispy Italian-Spiced Duck Leg and, more preposterously, Italian Steak Frites. This is larceny: it reminds my companion of the time the owner of a Milanese trattoria insisted he had invented Sachertorte.
It is boastful too: Our Famous Prawn Linguine. The Ultimate Burger. World’s Best Olives on Ice. Awarding Winning Pecorino & Chilli Jam. Epic Brownie. This is menu-themed narcissism. It is like eating a certain kind of journalist.
The pasta course is well-seasoned but overcooked; the Crispy Italian-Spiced Duck Leg has never dreamt of Italy, let alone quacked there; the Italian Steak Frites are French Steak Frites.
All this is a hoax inflicted on the clients, who have been enticed away from Pizza Express, where they really wanted to eat, by Oliver’s fame. (Pizza Express is a very good restaurant). It is essentially, a restaurant for Alan Partridges who dare the poisons of Soho and – as is customary – are fleeced for their trouble. It may be in Piccadilly Circus, but, spiritually, it a Surrey pub for divorced Dads on Sunday afternoons; a posh “Italian-Style” Harvester” selling over-priced food that does not know where it is from. (Harvester is not a good restaurant).
Fennel “rubbed” pork scratchings tell us all – this is a child’s restaurant.