As a restaurant critic, a new Jamie Oliver venture is cause to rub your hands together. There’s a lot of material to work with. Oliver is a man of contradictions; at once a very shrewd businessman and an implausible caricature. He gives you enough rope to make the perimeter of a cricket field. He’s probably the only person in the world who is less realistic than his parody Twitter account (@TheMockneyCook).
His philanthropic venture Fifteen opened ten years ago as part of his mission to become the Nicest Man Ever; before his commendable quest to ban Turkey Twizzlers from school dinner menus and long before his borderline-messianic project to set up a “Dream School”, in which disadvantaged children were taught by minor celebrities (this project – which I assume was literally inspired by a dream – included David Starkey as a verbally abusive history lecturer). Fifteen’s laudable aim was to take 15 unemployed youngsters and train them to be chefs. Did I mention it gives all of its profits to charity? It does.
A decade later, Fifteen has undergone its first major facelift and brought in former St John chef Jon Rotheram to head up the kitchen.
Its mission statement is thus: best of British ingredients… blah blah… provenance… blah bah blah… seasonal… blah blah yawn blah. This is all very admirable, of course, but it’s the same spiel you now get from every restaurant in the country. The very words fill me with an endless, yawning ennui. It makes me want to go all Jeremy Clarkson and order panda steak with Galapagos tortoise bone marrow, or sirloin of black rhino with a side of fried orangutan fingers (doesn’t matter how it’s cooked as long as it’s killed with a lawnmower).
As a bit of background research, I went to Jamie’s Italian in Cardiff over the weekend. It was one of the worst meals I have ever eaten. Jamie’s crab mac ‘n’ cheese was an inedible salty goop, apparently forgoing any cheese. The sausage pappardelle wasn’t much better. The menu was littered with words like “epic” and “funky”, which would be insulting even if it were accurate.
Does this have anything to do with Fifteen? No. Different chef, different franchise, different concept. But you can’t go stamping your name over everything in sight and not expect people to lump them all together (in the name of full disclosure, Jamie’s Barbecoa is one of my favourite places to take people for lunch in the City. The fillet steak is proper funky, yeah?).
The new décor in Fifteen lies somewhere between a high-end brasserie and a homely British pub. It’s nice without knocking your socks off. I went on a Thursday evening and the clientele was mostly continental European tourists. Adhering to national stereotypes, the group of Germans at the next table enjoyed their meal in apposite silence, while some Italians seemed to be having a whale of a time.
“We’re all about family here,” said our waiter Andreas, who was wearing a bow-tie. He suggested we order several dishes and share them, tapas-style.
The asparagus with eggs – from Oliver’s garden, no less – and truffle arrived first. It desperately needed salt (“how can you serve an egg without salt – it’s a travesty,” fumed my guest). I’m not sure what Jamie feeds his chickens but the egg yolk was a colour of a sunset in heaven; the colour a child might use if he was asked to draw an egg using crayons. I imagine this is how Oliver sees the world: in big, bright, happy primary colours.
Next up was the juniper-cured salmon with kohlrabi and French parsley, which was excellent – flavoursome and moist, with a light but unmistakable gin-ny twang. The venison sausage was deliciously smoky and its accompanying beetroot slaw was good enough to be a dish in its own right; real hearty comfort food.
The stand-out dish was the lemon sole, which peeled satisfyingly away from its skeleton under Andreas’ well-trained knife. The accompanying brown shrimp and almond sauce was subtle enough to add interesting texture without getting in the way of the flavour of the fish.
The kids in the Fifteen kitchen were on quite a roll. The grilled sirloin, though, was average; cooked well enough but lacking the depth of flavour of a really good steak. At £26 – by far the most expensive thing we ordered – it should have been better.
The desserts were fine: my apple tart was a little too sweet and, somehow, not apply enough, while the madeleines were just OK.
The Italian sommelier, Federica, was outstanding, recommending an excellent bottle of Italian red (reasonable at £35) and twisting our arms until we tried a divine Valpantena dessert wine.
Excluding the rather profligate second bottle, the meal came to a respectable £155. It’s not cheap, but I can’t think of a flagship by a celebrity chef that is.
Nobody is going to rate Fifteen among the best restaurants in the city – but that seems to miss the point. The new, laid-back menu and cosy ambiance fit the concept down to the ground. It’s the kind of place I would take my mother, who would adore it, and would tell her friends she’d eaten at a place owned by that nice man off the telly.
First published in City A.M.