Sunday, 15 January 2012

Jamie's Italian, Oxford

On a cold Monday evening, I was stood at a bus stop in Oxford waiting for the bus to take me back to the Park & Ride car park. Oxford is the first place I've come across that charges for both parking and riding: most places, where I've used park & ride schemes, you either pay for parking and the bus is free, or the parking is free and you pay for the bus.

Looking at the timetable, I realised I'd just missed the bus and was settling in for lengthy wait when I turned round and saw a dimly lit large room, with tables and chairs, lots of bare, dark wood, and a large bar. Further investigation revealed it to be Jamie's Italian, other branches of which I'd coincidentally heard slated recently.

Could it really be as bad as people made out? I had a long journey ahead of me, and a meal would conveniently take me beyond the West Midlands rush hour.

It's quite a short menu that strolls around Italy (and a burger) with lots of Jamie Oliver cheeky chappy geezer-speak scattered around. It's a refreshing change from the usual Britalian stock-in-trade-menus that dominate so many of the pepper-mill-toting high street Italians. That's a good start. From the greeting onwards, staff were good too.

As I went through the various items I fancied, working out just how greedy I could be, it quickly became apparent that while superficially good value, you could quickly run up a hefty bill. I reined in my enthusiasm, and decided not to go for those dishes (burrata and charcuterie) that relied merely on sourcing.

Chicken Liver Tortellini sounded interesting: even if they're made in a central production kitchen, they're not the bought-in tortellini that are so often found in Britalian pizza-pasta joints. The menu talks the talk, verging into breathy Marks & Spencer this-is-not-just style language: they're not just chicken livers, they're Norfolk Black chicken livers flamed with Vin Santo, sage & pancetta. Yes, well, we'll see.

Sadly, it's just me who will see, as it's so gloomy at my table there are no photographs. Having been impressed with the menu, I was looking forward to the critics being proved wrong. Oh dear.

It looked good. Half a dozen neat tortellini, sage butter, some crispy prosciutto on top. I wasn't impressed by the whole sage leaves. Weirdly, the first tortellino I cut into was empty! The next one wasn't, thankfully. I wouldn't know that it had seen any vin santo, and any pancetta element in the filling was limited, but it was a very good tortellini filling, avoiding the pastiness of virtually all commercial offerings. The pasta was pretty decent, at least until you got to where it had been folded over: there it was really thick, which meant it was undercooked. Very undercooked. Not right. The waitress reacted promptly and said she'd talk to the kitchen and get another dish prepared, properly this time.

It wasn't. This time, there was a crisp sage leaf alongside the prosciutto. The tortellini were mad hot, but still suffered from too thick a sealed edge that hadn't been able to cook through. This was a production error, not a cooking error. The manager came over this time, and took one look at the undercooked pasta, identified by looking at it that it was undercooked, and that it would scarcely be possible to cook it properly without wildly overcooking the rest. He said he'd take it off the bill, and remove it from the menu for the night.

My main course was a very creditable fritto misto. A good selection of fish, all nicely cooked, all nice and fresh. Very clean flavours, nicely seasoned. I liked the tartare sauce too: nice and creamy with good balance. The presentation was a little over the top, however. The pieces of fish were presented on a sheet of brown paper, scrunched so it stood up vertically on one side of the plate. Then, on top of the fish, was a rather towering structure made out of deep-fried angel hair pasta. Certainly visually impressive, but somewhere between difficult and impossible to eat. The nest of crispy pasta also seemed a bit over-seasoned to me. I'd almost given up on it and was moving it aside when I noticed it contained a large prawn: head on, tail on, but otherwise peeled. Again nicely cooked. But I almost missed it amid all the silly crispy pasta.

Fritto misto and sparkling water came to £19.90.

So, overall a bit of a mixed experience, rescued by the excellent service.

Jamie's Italian on Urbanspoon

A return visit to Vnam Café

This is just a quick report of a return visit to Vnam Café on Oldham Road in north Manchester.  Everything I said in  my previous report still holds.

The setting is basic and easily missed from the street, though I was told they are hoping to do something about that.

I ordered some barbecued quail to start with and the beef pho, though both came together.

Chim Cut Nu'ong: BBQ quail
Six quid buys you three half quails. I've no idea what's in the marinade that the quail must have been in, but it's jolly good.  The little bowl I think contained merely salt and pepper, but wasn't really necessary, as the quail was tasty enough in itself.  Very juicy meat combined with a bit of char and a slight crisp to the skin. Delicious.  Though not a dish for those afraid of bones or of using their fingers.

Pho Bo: Beef noodle soup
 Then on to the main event of this quick lunch, the Vietnamese national dish, phô. This is a noodle soup, the star of which should be the stock.  My pho was pho bo, apparently the northern Vietnamese version, featuring a beef stock and slices of beef (in the south of Vietnam, pho is apparently more heavily seasoned and features more herbs, greens and chillies).  A pile of beansprouts and herbs come separately, along with some rather ferocious sliced chillis.  According to the menu, the broth is flavoured with cinammon, cloves, star anise and coriander.  I can't say that I could particularly identify them, but, while quite light, it was nicely flavoured and didn't dominate the other ingredients.  Initially, I shovelled in most of the beansprouts, herbs and chillis, but it wasn't long before I was fishing out the chillis, as for me, they'd more than done their work and were my making my nose run! Again, this was great value: £6.50 bought a very large bowl that I struggled to finish.

Vnam Café is unlicensed, so I kept it local and had a can of Vimto! That brought the total cost to £13.50. Excellent value.  Good, friendly service too.

At the end of my meal I noticed that staff lunch appeared to be bowls of steaming pho, which is a recommendation in itself.

Vnam Café on Urbanspoon