Love him or hate him, you certainly can't ignore Jamie Oliver, even more the case now that Jamie's Italian has landed here, in a prime inside-outside spot on the ground floor of the Canberra Centre.
The East End lad who exploded on to our screens as The Naked Chef in the late 1990s is a massive global brand, and the restaurant chain that started just five years ago has dozens of outlets from Dubai to Manchester, Perth to Canberra.
But that's OK. The problem with most celebrity chefs is they produce food no domestic cook could dream of replicating - mock fish scales made of mandolin potato, 17-step sauces. Not only does this kind of performance-art cheffing have little to do with the day-in day-out reality, but it spawns a generation of 12 year olds whose greatest ambition is to melt a candy wafer really evenly around a snow egg of meringue.
The lad famous for hoodies and rapid-fire chat has a keep-it-simple-and-fun philosophy that spills right out into his restaurant.
Let's start with the queue. No one likes standing in line, but we were warned it would be busy, so we arrive early, along with everyone else. As soon as we join in, the kids are given little red viewmasters to check out the small persons' menu, and we are told staff can send a text message when a table's free. By the time we're at the front, lots of people have trotted off for a drink with about an hour to wait. But kids get preference, especially when it's hot, and the lass squeezes us into a booth table by the bar.
The place is colourful, high-ceilinged and boisterous. Plenty of really friendly people come to serve us, and explain the menu. There are a few start-up issues and things take a while to arrive, but apologies flow and eventually so does the food.
The first thing that strikes you are prices; this place is relatively cheap by Canberra standards with entrees from $9.50, bread for $1.50 and mains from about $20.
We begin with a cured meat "plank" ($13.50 a person), gnocchi and spicy Calabrese sauce ($9.50), and crab and avocado bruschetta ($16).
Laid out on a long paddle-shaped board balanced on tomato tins are wafer-thin slices of very good cured meat - San Daniele prosciutto, wagyu bresaola, finocchio and artisanal mortadella. The quality is above standard for the price. A lovely tender ball of bocconcini sits centre stage and a little shaved salad of root veg with mint and lemon is zesty and refreshing.
Little fried gnocchi are dotted down a similar paddle arrangement, full of uncomplicated flavour, and each sitting in a blob of spicy tomato sauce.
The crab and avocado bruschetta is very popular we are told, and its mild and pleasantly sweet seafood flavour is certainly easy to eat.
Small salads are a feature here, and chopped ones without dressing come in cute little flip-top jars with every kid's meal. Most places have given up on salad for kids, but there is something of the crusader in Oliver, and the simple combo of carrot and tomato and other stuff chopped into a tiny dice and layered in a jar labelled "shake me" entertains our kids, and many go back to the kitchen at least half eaten.
The kids' options are chicken skewers (lollipops), spaghetti bolognese, fresh fish fingers and mini sliders with the famous polenta chips. All are $9.50 with salad and bottomless green cordial. We choose the chook and spaghetti, and both are properly made, decent food, a little plainer than the adult offerings, but not bland. The spaghetti is homemade, the sauce flavoursome and meaty. Chicken skewers are grilled, tender and good with a little yoghurt sauce.
Jamie's has barely been open a week during our visit, and the newness of the staff and the crowds are still challenging the systems. We have to ask a few times for drinks, and our order gets mixed up in the kitchen, but problems are well acknowledged.
For mains, we have Jamie's famous burger ($19.50), ravioli with peas ($14/$24) and land and sea risotto ($16/$29).
Stuffed with ricotta, peas and parmesan, the little raviolis are tender in a sweet green sauce, with a smattering of broad beans, asparagus and green beans. This is a simple and pleasant dish, with the harmony interrupted by one underdone ravioli.
The burger is disappointing - not inedible, but not as delicious as promised. Dryish meat with slightly mushy onion, and not enough flavour in the accompaniments leaves us feeling that a slug of tomato sauce and a few slices of beetroot wouldn't have gone astray.
The risotto is really just rice with a nice array of seafood, a little pancetta and spicy Italian sausage, with none of the rich absorbed goodness of the real thing. Still a pleasant dish.
Dessert is great and, at about $10, a great deal. The highlight is an excellent tutti-frutti lemon meringue pie ($9.50). Light, crisp pastry, really good tangy curd, and a wonderfully tender drift of meringue meant there's not a scrap left on the plate. Also good, the epic brownie ($10) is all warm and fudgy with extra excitement added by amaretto ice-cream and caramelised amaretti popcorn.
The wine and cocktail lists are good, with a tiny nod to Canberra, but otherwise lots of entirely drinkable Italian wine at decent prices. Jamie's Italian is not a great restaurant, but it is a good one, working hard to provide decent food and decent prices, with plenty of goodwill and more than a dash of the fun and flair of the young man who has turned his love of nosh into into a worldwide empire. >> Catriona Jackson is chief executive of peak lobby group Science and Technology Australia and a food writer.
Cuisine - Italian Features - Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating Chef(s) - Nick Haszard Owners - Pacific Restaurant Group Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS Opening Hours - Lunch and dinner seven days from 11am Seats - 128 inside, 60 outside Author - Catriona Jackson