Sometimes life gives you a real sense of your own mortality. Usually these moments are pretty clichéd, like realising you can’t name a song in the top 100, or that people a fraction of your age can beat you at Mario Kart. But sometimes these moments have a more human face. Sometimes it is the face of Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver.
Sitting in the first of a planned chain of Union Jacks (sans apostrophe) restaurants, I experienced middle age. Suede, Cast and the Bluetones played on the stereo; the dessert menu included Marathon Bar ice cream and arctic rolls. It’s aimed at children of the 80s, who listened to Oasis when they were still good and remember a time before Snickers. This restaurant, fronted by a middle-aged, middle-class celebrity chef, is aimed at me.
As the name suggests, Jacks is a celebration of Britishness, albeit a very narrowly defined – probably apocryphal – Britain where people use tea-cosies and eat fish and chips on Blackpool beach. The décor seems to be based on a public school canteen: the menu is pinned on a giant letter board above the open kitchen; mis-matched, shabby chic seats are covered in stickers from teen magazines; the napkins – emblazoned with Union Jacks’ heraldic logo – bring to mind those irritating Keep Calm and Carry On posters that absolutely nobody finds funny anymore.
The space at Central St Giles is hardly ideal restaurant fodder – it’s a vast, aircraft-hanger of concrete and glass, with gloomy, cavernous ceilings. Careful interior design to some extent mitigates this, with a giant central kitchen pushing the tables into orbit around it, making you feel slightly less like you’re dining in a cathedral. The floor-to-ceiling windows circling the entire restaurant also draw your eye outwards, although this isn’t necessarily a good thing – the Central St Giles landscape is hardly inspiring, with Steven Gontarski’s soulless abstract sculpture only marginally more interesting than the expanse of grey paving slabs.
In keeping with the British “theme” (and theme feels like the right word), and with Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s well-publicised personal agenda, most of the ingredients are locally sourced, with their provenance listed in a section of the menu. So what are your options? Yorkshire puddings and gravy? Steak and kidney pie? Fish and chips? Nope: pizza. While you won’t actually find the word written anywhere (it sells flatbreads), Union Jacks is essentially Italian food, which isn’t surprising given head chef Chris Bianco is the owner of Arizona’s (apparently) renowned Pizzeria Bianco.
That’s not to say it isn’t good. The bowl of chilli mussels I had to start was delicious. The garlic mushrooms were a little light on garlic and heavy on oil but perfectly edible. Next came the pizza (OK, the flatbread). I went for the Woodman, topped with wild mushrooms, red onions and fennel. The base was spot on; crispy on the surface and doughy underneath, with a hint of charcoal where the bread had risen in the wood-fired oven. It’s simple, tasty food – exactly the kind of thing Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver is famous for creating.
Dessert is where Jacks lets the British theme run away with itself. The menu includes bitter chocolate mousse with “Gary Baldy” biscuits, Earl Grey tea flavoured ice cream and Eton Mess. I went for the Marathon ice cream, served in an 80s-style silver goblet, which bore little resemblance to its namesake and came garnished with some kind of inedible cardboard stick with raisins stuck to it. The arctic roll was only slightly better, with the heap of tart berries overpowering the dull chocolate ice cream. While it scores points for nostalgia – this is exactly how I remember arctic roll tasting – there is a reason I haven’t eaten one in 15 years.
To end the meal you can forego the usual coffee in favour of a “builder’s tea”. I didn’t: it may be a talking point but there is no substitute for a thick dose of Italian caffeine.
As you’d expect from a restaurant owned by Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver, it runs like clockwork; he’s done this all before. The waiting staff are polite, attentive and very, very pretty. Everything gives the impression of being well thought out (the music, the menu, the little touches like badges arriving with your bill), which it undoubtedly is, by a team of besuited marketing men Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver employs for the sole purpose of joylessly coming up with ways to make his restaurants kooky.
The food won’t blow you away but with the bill coming in at around the same price as a Pizza Express – mine was under £50 including a cocktail – you can certainly do worse.
First published in City A.M. on 29 November 2011