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Lest we forget, Jamie Oliver is more than just the name of a man. It’s a multi-million culinary empire, and one that has finally claimed a part of Hong Kong as its own. At Jamie’s Italian, which occupies a good chunk of the brand-new Soundwill Midtown plaza in Causeway Bay, the ground floor waiting area, with its rustic array of J.O. branded utensils, cookbooks and pantry staples, reminds us a little of the gift shops you find in theme parks. And the fairground metaphor isn’t far off, with queues to get in stretching longer than those found at Space Mountain on any given public holiday. Once inside, the attack on the senses continues, with a brash, technicolour mural painted by Singaporean graffiti artist Ceno2 splayed across one wall, and a lengthy open kitchen peppering the noughties pop soundtrack with the clang of pots and pans. Bright ketchup reds and mustard yellows punctuate the design palette that includes wood, marble, tin and tile.
When Oliver first popped up on the scene, with his boyish looks and cheeky Essex accent, he put a refreshing spin on cooking, and put fun back into the kitchen. Jamie’s Italian is a hugely successful brand that builds on his slightly irreverent but mostly inoffensive approach to food, so simple flavours jazzed up with hyperbole permeates most of the menu. Some of the hero items clearly include the ‘planks’ – quite literally a plank of wood abundantly adorned with a choice of cured meats, fish, or seasonal vegetables, supported by a cast of nibbles such as pickles, buffalo mozzarella, plus beet and carrot salad. We forgo these in favour of the twist on a Brit school dinner favourite: cauliflower and cheese, which are made into golden-brown fritters and served with a “fiery arrabbiata dip”. The nuggets have good texture but very little flavour, and the sauce lacks both body and spice; it could be an excellent dish if the fritters had a dash more seasoning (or a sharper cheese), and the dip with more pungent chillies and salt. We’re pretty excited by the list of pastas – some days, all you want is a hearty plateful of carbs – and like that they can be ordered in half-portions. But the vongole taglioni has no zip from the chilli, garlic, or white wine, and the shellfish (“the best carpet shell clams”, enthuses the menu) are strangely both plump yet dry. The fennel sausage pappardelle is a strange creature; instead of flat, wide noodles, the pasta is so tightly scrunched they resemble fat zippers. The ragù is enjoyable enough but, generally, the pasta dishes leave much to be desired; sometimes it really is the simple things that are hardest to perfect. We’re much happier with the lamb “lollipops” (cutlets, essentially) which are juicy and not at all gamey; the cooling yoghurt dip with a swirl of chilli oil and the nicely pickled red onion add layers of flavour to the nicely charred meat. For dessert, our waitress recommends the “Epic Brownie”, which would have been flawless had the brownie had more ooze; we did like the accompanying salted caramel gelato and caramelised amaretti popcorn, however.
The drinks list is keenly priced, with cocktails costing half of what they would in a trendy Central bar. There’s also Young Master Classic ale on tap, and the wine list offers plenty of options by carafe, 250ml and 150ml glasses. It’s a friendly, all-Italian selection that guides diners with helpful tasting notes.
Service is still a little shaky at this point (finished plates sometimes go unnoticed, and we have to request for appropriate cutlery at times) but on the whole we thought the team were trying hard to provide a warm dining experience. The kitchen does seem swamped, as lengthy waiting times between courses is a complaint we have both heard about and experienced ourselves.
A meal for two with drinks and service comes to about HK$800 for two – definitely not a high price to pay in this part of town, but we’re not sure if the variable quality of the cooking and the lengthy waits for a table are worth the hassle at this point. We’ll wait for the queues to die down (perhaps Gordon Ramsay’s opening next month will siphon off some of the crowds), and for the team to catch their breath, before contemplating a return.