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Jamioe does the business
I was nervous about showering Jamie Oliver's new Oxford Italian restaurant with praise. What if it all goes Pete Tong', as Jamie would say. What if the first few weeks are a flash in his griddle pan. What if it all goes downhill faster than Gordon Brown's election hopes?
The fact that we had an exceptional meal there within minutes of the George Street eatery opening its doors doesn't mean it will always be like that.
Shouldn't I leave it until the staff get tired, the kitchen sloppy and the ingredients have run out?
But, with no sign of this happening, and Jamie's latest enterprise continuing to create a buzz, I decided to plough on regardless.
Besides, you will all want to know what it is like, whether Mr Oliver will be in the kitchen shouting pukka mate' and lovely jubbly' at the chefs as he rustles up another bowl of homemade black truffle pasta or throws another steak on the grill. But most of all you will want to know if it is any good.
All I can say say is yes' and what are you waiting for?' This isn't a TV spin-off, or a campaign, or PR for his latest book or a charity do. This is Jamie Oliver's own restaurant built with his own money and it has to work or, as he put it, he'll have to sell his house.
"I've grafted for ten years for this," he told me. "This is the food I want to eat and the food I want my friends and family to eat."
But without swallowing the whole PR spiel and spending too long on why he's chosen Italian rather than English (he just loves it apparently, simple as that) I wanted to see if he can put his chef's apron where his infamous Essex mouth is.
Don't expect gourmet meals, Jamie's is all about delicious ingredients and simple home-cooking with that unmistakeable Jamie twist - the menu being splattered with jamie-isms like smashed garlic', lovely lamb', fantastic beef', ouzey mushrooms', loadsa herbs' and humble salad'.
It is also fun, and the atmosphere hits you as soon as you walk in the door. There is an air of excitement about the place which revs up the tempo, as do the cocktails you consume while waiting for a table. No, you can't book.
You also want to try everything, from the home-made pasta, burgers, salads, steaks to the obligatory antipasti planks (because not to would be criminal) which are balanced on tins of tomatoes on your table and filled with gorgeous goodies.
And forget minimalist interiors and pine floors, the decor is wacky, with graffiti murals downstairs and hams swinging in the window. The tables are crammed in so it is noisy, busy and refreshingly alive, and, so far, the place has been packed to the rafters.
As for the food - the crispy polenta chips are indelibly imprinted on my tastebuds - deep-fried in a rosemary and salt crust. I could have eaten bowlfuls - in fact, I did eat bowlfuls. The creaminess of the mozarella, the chilli bite of the jam with the pecorino, the crunchiness of the root salad, the doughiness of the home-made bread, the crispy scorched lamb, also left a deep impression.
It was all good with moments of greatness. The pasta surprisingly was the only mediocre part of the meal, that and the Caesar salad. The turbo penne arabbiatta had about as much kick as a lame mule and the salad dressing was a far cry from the classic creaminess fans expect - and the chicken was served on the side. Sacrilege indeed.
But the sirloin steak (dry-aged for 21 days on the bone, chargrilled and served pink with grilled chestnut mushrooms and dressed watercress) and the lamb chops scorched fingers (with dressed salad greens and Italian mint sauce) were described as exceptional'.
We ate too much of everything, drank some great wine (hand-picked by Mr Oliver of course) and turned down pudding of any sort, although the icecream with smashed honeycomb and hot chocolate sauce, the ultimate brownie or the Amalfi orange tart sounded divine.
But Mr Oliver was nowhere to be seen, - as he is busy opening replicas of the Oxford restaurant in Bath, Cambridge, Brighton and Kingston. The Naked Chef is all grown-up.
n Jamie's Italian, George Street, Oxford. tel: 01865 838883