Tuesday 20 December 2011

Union Jacks

In an age where there are so many cooking shows and celebrity chefs on TV, I still find Jamie Oliver’s brand of chummy, enthusiastic authenticity very watchable. To back this up he has launched a chain of Italian restaurants, Jamie’s Italian, which aside from having a boring name are pretty good. Not everything is spot on, but they are affordable, interesting and the food is of a generally high standard, especially the pasta. So his new place, Union Jacks, was top of my go-to list when it opened, especially as the menu reads like a list of my favourite things – fish fingers, ham hock, pizza, ice cream, Kentish wine and craft beer.
          It is located in a recently made-over St Giles, in between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn, and the whole place is reminiscent of an outdoor shopping centre. This is not helped by the open, glass fronted restaurant, which does make the place feel too empty, exposed and not particularly relaxing, a bit like an airport coffee shop. At 9pm on a Saturday it wasn’t full, and it didn’t have the lively buzz of his Italians, perhaps a bit over designed and chainy, but the atmosphere was fine, the staff were attentive and the place looks pretty good inside.
       The ethos of the restaurant is British ingredients, but Italian style, with pizzas (flatbreads) taking centre stage. All the wines are from the Chapel Down producer in Kent – most of their wines are very decent, but if you can afford to splash out on the sparkling stuff then do, this is where they excel. The multi-talented producers also have a brewery, and two of their beers are the only ones available here. The Brut, a lager, great with the full flavoured, salty pizzas and a tidy bargain at £4 a pint, and for the same price you can have the IPA, which although unspectacular is thoroughly decent and is great with some of the chilli-liberal dishes on the menu.
         I could easily have ordered any of the starters, which ranges from classic, memory laden British comfort food like fish fingers and garlic mushrooms, to more modern inventions – bloody mary mussles sounds painful but is probably delicious. A plate of mini Yorkshire puddings with smoked trout read too well on the page not to order, and indeed the trout was light and sweet, and greatly enhanced by the crisp and fluffy yorkies – despite the fact they were overdone. A ham hock terrine was also not faultless – the piccalilli it came with needed more kick and bread was only offered once asked for. But at £4 for a generous serving, perfection is not required, it just needs to make you happy, and it did. In a similar trend to burgers, pizzas are getting some real attention across London, and there is no place to hide for bad examples. Thankfully Union Jack’s flatbreads are right up there with the best; ultra thin and crispy round the edges, sizable, and well seasoned. The toppings are distinct and thoughtful -  sardines and fennel, roast pork crackling and blue cheese, some classic combinations but perhaps not usually seen on a pizza. The ones we tried were the chilli freak and the Red Ox. It sounds obvious, but the chilli freak is lip quiveringly hot, the multitude of colourful firecrackers spread across the pizza really doing justice to the name. Served on the side is a small pot of goats curd for dippin’, which is both delicious and effective at cooling the heat, at least for the first few slices. The braised brisket, Red Leicester and horseradish in the Red Ox gave a rich, salty and decadent flavour, and I would definitely come back for another of these. All the flatbreads were between £9 and £12.
            A whole bunch of things we wanted for desert weren’t available, notably the Snickers ice cream, but we consoled ourselves with coffee and chocolate flavours, and a ‘retro’ arctic roll, which were all above average, especially the coffee ice cream which was dark, bittersweet and grown up. Add in brisk, pleasant service (which is not included in the bill, refreshingly), the very decent food and the £50 we paid for 3 courses and a couple of beers each, and this is definitely another ready-to-roll concept from Jamie which will be welcome in most high streets, and soon will be. Where it will actually be better suited is outside of the relentless competition and scrutiny of the capital, in smaller towns where they can really improve the culinary landscape and take on a more local, relaxed feel, which this original flagship restaurant will never be able to achieve given its location and design. I hope this concept succeeds and grows, it deserves to.

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