Monday, 16 April 2012
Union Jacks, St Giles
While there were many things wrong with Jamie's Italian, at least the concept was sound. It was the Oliver Empire attempt at a nationwide family-friendly Italian chain in the Carluccio's mold, and though I'd personally rather eat at Pizza Hut (particularly now they've launched a new hot-dog stuffed-crust pizza - mmm) the rate at which Jamie's Italians are now multiplying around the UK means there is definitely still a demand for this kind of thing. In short, a celebrity name above the door can only get you so far - Jamie's Italians have a sense of purpose and a clear sense of identity and these have contributed to its success despite the rather rubbish food.
But what on earth is he up to with Union Jacks? There's a little introduction insert in the menu. "At Union Jacks, we want to take you on a journey of discovery through Britain", it begins, "and reintroduce you to familiar flavours cooked and presented the Union Jacks way." This is all very well, and there's a lot to be said for anywhere that wants to take the use of British ingredients seriously, but as far as I can make out, their radical idea is to take a random collection of famous names - Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Worcestershire sauce, pickled onion, and slap them on top of a cheap pizza base. Except they don't call them pizzas, they call them "flats". Not a pizza, not a pide or some other kind of Middle-Eastern flatbread, but a brand new Great British creation exclusively available at a Union Jacks near you now, and literally nowhere else at any time in history. To launch not just a new restaurant chain but to also single-handedly try to create a new style of cuisine, well, the man has ambition, I'll give him that.
Again, all of which would be fine if all those fancy ingredients weren't all used in such odd ways. Take the "Red Ox", a thin layer of slow-cooked (and fairly decent) oxtail alongside some mushy oniony gloop of some kind, bashed into meek submission by shockingly orange blobs of powerful unpasteurised Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and then finished off with a kilo of watercress. The cardboardy base splintered and snapped when I tried to pick up a slice to eat, and the mix of strong cheese, funky horseradish and bitter greens just made a giant, confusing and faintly disgusting mess. Yes the bread itself was poor and tasteless but it wasn't otherwise cooked badly - these ingredients were just simply never meant to exist together as pizza toppings. Which is presumably why they never ever have anywhere else before.
Still hungry after abandoning great swathes of dry crust from my "flat", I gave Union Jacks a chance to redeem themselves with dessert - a "Retro Arctic Roll". I'm fairly sure when I had Arctic Rolls at the school canteen they didn't come with a fresh summer berry compôte so perhaps the "retro" just means they'd kept it in the freezer longer - that would explain the very crumbly sponge at least. Otherwise this was a very ordinary thing, just about worth £4.50 but hardly worth going back for.
Many of the problems with Union Jacks come from the same place that made Jamie Oliver's other heavily-publicised restaurant Barbecoa so disappointing. Not knowing whether it wanted to be an authentic American BBQ joint or a modern international restaurant showcasing British ingredients, Barbecoa fell awkwardly between these two competing philosophies and never really excelled at anything. The food there was expensive, geographically vague and ultimately mediocre despite the phalanx of chefs having access to a huge open-plan kitchen with as many different types of ovens as anyone could want (or need). Union Jacks have access to some fantastic local produce that we should be very rightly proud of, but dumping them all on a pizza base and calling it cooking is most definitely not the future. At least, I bloody well hope it isn't.