Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Jamie's Italian, Westfield Stratford City
With many of the best new restaurants in London not taking reservations, the grumbling of discontent amongst people who prefer to eat their dinner on a guaranteed table at a guaranteed time (and of course I can appreciate where they're coming from) grows ever louder. A few years back it was only fast food joints or tourist traps like the Hard Rock Café that didn't take bookings, and nobody gave a damn about those. But since the influx of no-bookings restaurants that served food people actually wanted to eat (a group that essentially contains all the current rock gods of London dining - the Polpo group, Burger & Lobster, Pitt Cue, MeatLiquor, etc.), the question of To Queue Or Not To Queue has split opinion quite dramatically.
Needless to say, I am a tragic restaurant geek that will happily queue for hours in the freezing cold for the best St. Louis ribs in town, but I still have some tricks to make my chances as good as possible. One of them is to hit what industry types refer to as the "shoulder hours" - the gap in between lunch and dinner around 3-5pm, where the stragglers for lunch have yet to properly overlap with the early birds for the evening. Also, if you can bear to wait that long, even the legendary queues at MeatLiquor tend to calm down by about 9:30/10pm ish, so that's another period you're quite likely to score a walk-in. Possibly. Alright, maybe not on a Friday. Or Saturday.
The point is, I know how frustrating it is to not know when you're going to eat or where - or even if - you're going to sit, and I've heard all the arguments about how the system is all about convenience for the restaurant and not the consumer, and how it tends to create a transitory atmosphere of people who got lucky rather than a steady culture of friendly regulars. But the fact is, a no-bookings policy coupled with a reliable stream of punters allows a restaurant to charge less for better ingredients, and if the upshot is that you can eat an entire steamed lobster with chips and a salad in the middle of Mayfair for £20, well, I'll grin and bear it. And judging by the massive popularity of many of these places, so can many others.
But what if somewhere makes you queue for half an hour and then still serves overpriced, mediocre rubbish in a charmless corner of a shopping centre in Stratford? You probably won't believe me if you've read my post on Barbecoa but I really wanted to like Jamie's Italian; the guy knows good food when he sees it, and coupled with all the willing investors he must surely be able to magic up with an internationally famous profile like that, you'd think he'd be able to hit all the bases of decent Italian home cooking and use economies of scale to get hold of decent ingredients. Instead, he seems to have created a slightly more expensive version of Zizzi's, and as anyone who's ever been to Zizzi's will tell you, this is not a good thing.
In the interests of fairness, I should say that the drinks from the bartenders at Jamie's Italian Westfield Stratford were pretty decent. My Negroni was tiny and warm but had all the proper ingredients in proper proportions, and my friend's Florence Fizz, containing shocking pink pomegranate juice, was just about refreshing enough to justify the £6.25 price tag. Also they seem to have constructed themselves a worthwhile wine list by most chain Italian standards, the house chardonnay from Puglia being unexpectedly lovely for a paltry £15.85. I still would have quite liked to have been brought the actual bottle though, rather than have it from a big glass vase - not that I don't trust them, of course...
But, oh dear, the food. Sirloin steak, ordered medium, came disastrously overcooked to well done and was a laborious task to eat. This is a shame because I have a feeling, based on rolling a piece of leathery beef around my mouth for a minute or two, that the raw product wasn't bad at all - and it was at least seasoned well. Accompanying "funky" chips (kill me now) were diabolical - soggy and bland and a strange orange hue that brought to mind deep-fried slugs, they were the kind of thing that made you angry anyone even considered them worth sending out of the kitchen. My Turkey Milanese did at least arrive with a faint hint of truffle, albeit far less than the picture below would indicate as the fungus itself was pretty cardboardy, but the turkey was nothing more than a huge sponge of bland meat transporting (I'm guessing) about two litres of cooking oil. The best thing about this plate of food was the fried egg, and even that wasn't very nice.
It's a good job we drank more than is usually wise of a Saturday lunchtime because without the calming effect of the alcohol I'm not sure I would have left with my sanity. And before you say anything no, we didn't complain - just think of all the reasons you've ever had for not complaining about a mediocre meal, and pick one; we were trying to enjoy ourselves, we didn't want to make a fuss, we wanted to just get out of there and go home. And get out of there we eventually did (attracting the waitress being a surprisingly hard task in a restaurant so full of staff), £60 lighter and each of us - I from the turkey, my friend from her soggy chips, and both of us from the overwhelming stench of ripoff - really quite queasy.
There's a good way and a bad way of going about treating paying customers if you run a no-bookings policy. Either queue 'em up and pack 'em in but give those lucky enough to reach the front of the line mind-blowingly good food at stupidly low prices (see paragraph two), or use your high profile and backlog of good will to charge a huge number of people way over the odds for crappy food. As much as I'd kept an open mind for my meal on Saturday, and as much as I'd love to say that here was a new chain that could finally lift high street dining in Britain above its current desperately poor level, it was very soon obvious that instead of something that will beat the groaning corpse of Zizzi's, Ask and Carluccio's into the ground where they belong, the Jamie's Italian model is actually just more of the same - commodity ingredients, cooked badly, served for the highest possible profit. How thoroughly depressing.