Occasionally in life, you come across one of those magic moments that you wish you could bottle and release on demand when times get tough. This evening was one of them.
The weather was glorious, the start of a fabulous early May bank holiday.
Our ultimate destination was Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle, where Michael McIntyre was waiting to entertain us (and 11,000 others). In the meantime, another famous name was to be our host – celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Actually, the top restaurateur was there only in name, not in person. We had booked a table at Jamie’s Italian, opposite Grey’s Monument in the centre of town, one of a chain of such venues around the country.
We were celebrating Christmas – this was a thoughtful gift from daughter. We toasted her health with our first glass of wine – Magnificent Montepulciano (£22 a bottle), a fruity number from the co-operative Il Faggio in the Abruzzo area of Italy. The cherry and plum tones were the perfect preparation for our meal.
We were sitting in a stripped-back, almost industrial setting, with a large, open kitchen behind us and the most amazing view down Grey Street ahead.
Our expectation of Jamie milking his celebrity with over-priced food was not met. Dishes were no more expensive than comparable, good-quality restaurants, even some pubs these days.
Do you think these sound reasonable? Carbonara pasta (small, £6.80 / large £11.50); organic potato gnocchi pomodoro (small £6.80 / large £11.50); hand-crafted pizza, four cheese topping (£12.50); or even 35-day dry-aged sirloin steak (£23).
It was a good mixture of traditional favourites, albeit with an intriguing Jamie twist, and complex dishes toying with experimental combinations of flavours.
To help us navigate such an interesting menu, we opted for a couple of items from the Nibbles section: Big Green Olives On Ice (£4), with black olive tapenade and music bread; and Oozy Cheese Croquettes (£5) or cheesy fonduta.
Both were top notch, the olives in particular were among the best we’ve had, not too acetic nor salty, but soft, ripe and moreish. The accompanying tapenade, a piquant paste with a black olive base, was delicious. Get me back there now!
Back to the task at hand – picking through the menu.
Eventually, and, I have to say, much of the delay was due to the opposite side of the table, we made our choices.
Starters were to be herby Devonshire crab bruschetta, with chilli and smashed avocado (£6.50) and, for me, buttermilk squid, sustainably caught and battered, with rocket, lemon and aioli (£7.30).
Mrs L was so excited with her bruschetta that she urged me to try it. I did and can confirm it was quite special, gorgeous flavours all blending imperiously.
My squid was coated in a contrastingly crunchy batter that gave way to reveal the soft seafood centre. Only one word for it – yummy!
No prizes for guessing where Mrs L went for her main course in an Italian restaurant – lasange, of course.
But this was no ordinary lasagne, this was Jamie’s Epic Lasagne (£13.50) – pork and beef ragù layered with pasta, tomato sauce, béchamel and mozzarella. Well, if you thought she was in heaven with her first two choices, the smile broadened even further. Although it looked slightly over-cooked. I’m assured you’ll need to go some to find a finer lasagne.
“You can taste all the individual and distinct flavours,” she purred and, this time, refused me even a morsel!
I took her word for it.
Before me was placed a well-presented, appetising dish from the specials board – seafood linguine (£14.50), with the classic pairing of scallop, prawn, squid and British mussels in a white wine, anchovy and caper lemon butter sauce, with cherry tomatoes and parsley.
I’m still drooling now! All my favourite ingredients rolled into one dish and it was sitting on the table in front of me. It did not disappoint, although it did have a substantial kick that masked some of the more subtle tastes.
TAKING ITALIAN FOOD TO NEW LEVEL
The whole experience at Jamie’s Italian had been a cut above, from our initial welcome to the last mouthful of food, washed down, of course, by the final drop of wine, and a sip from the carafe of water brought to our table.
We had indulged ourselves on the savoury courses to leave us unable to sample desserts and, with a date to keep down the road, we paid up and scuttled off.
And for the record, Mr McIntyre also lived up to his billing. We had tears rolling down our cheeks as he lurched from one hilarious anecdote to another.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Antipasti & Nibbles
Crispy polenta chips......£4
Spicy ’nduja meatballs......£7
Vegetable antipasti plate......£6.90
Meat plank......£15 for two to share
Pasta & Mains
Tagliatelle bolognese......£6.80 / £11.50
Jamie’s octopus ravioli......£15
Grilled chicken under a brick......£14.50
Jamie’s Italian burger......£14.90
Veggie quinoa & kale burger......£14
Molten chocolate praline pudding......£6.50
Baked lemon & ricotta cheesecake......£5.90
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Use of local food......6
Value for money......8
Access for disabled......8
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: Delicious, authentic pizzas with dollops of imagination.
Contact: 0191 5000858 or www.jamieoliver.com