So. I have to admit I was a little bit sceptical about the new Jamie's Italian restaurant that has just opened at the top of King Street. Sure, I like Jamie Oliver, with his admirably "can-do" attitude to social reform, his proud upholding of family values, and - most importantly - his foolproof recipe for honey banana pancakes, for which Mr Liz bays loudly and lustily pretty much every weekend. But would Manchester really welcome the arrival of the latest outpost of the Oliver Empire? This is a city that prides itself on its individuality after all, and doesn't always take kindly to incomers: here, we fly the flag for all that is good, and unique, and NORTHERN, whether that be the North Star Deli home-made black pudding that appeared in these very pages last week, or the latest Robert Owen Brown six-courser that will appear in these very pages by the weekend. Up here, if a local pig innocently wanders past, we eat it - all of it. Honestly, how much do we need the 26th branch of the all-conquering Essex boy's chain of eateries? Manchester doesn't take kindly to finishing second in anything, let alone being ranked alongside the very last letter of the alphabet.
And yet. As a Northern import myself I felt duty bound to give the new restaurant a chance (well, that and an overwhelming urge to trough an enormous meal - although in a professional manner, obv), and the experience that Jamie's Italian served up last night has forced me to eat every single last doubt, along with one of the finest meals I've had for a very long time. First things first: the location. There has been much talk of how the old Midland Bank building might look after its conversion to an eatery, and the evidence seen here hopefully gives an idea of how well this has been done: this is an impressive space that makes full use of the original features already in place. We sat up on the small mezzanine level which, although quite crowded, afforded spectacular views across the old banking hall (which, presumably, never used to have a bar in the middle with pigs hanging from it) and the hoards of hungry diners scoffing all that appeared before them. These photographs, by the way, are provided courtesy of the selfless Mr Liz, who was allowed to come along on the proviso that he bring his big camera (technical name) with him *surreptitiously wipes small smear of chilli jam or similar from posh case*
I'd made the mistake of looking at the online menu during one of my routine never-too-early-to-think-about-food moments at approximately 10am on the day of dining, a fatal error when there's not a single thing on the aforementioned selection that you don't want to eat there and then, that very minute: I'm not exaggerating when I say I've already chosen which dishes I want to have the next few times I go. To a certain extent, choice of starter on your first visit is quite easy if you're like me, and can't resist the thought of a "food plank" (although Jamie's term for it - "Seasonal Meat Antipasti" is perhaps a LITTLE classier) - a gert piece of wood perched atop two tins of tomatoes (I suspect it would be frowned upon if you prised these open with your bare hands and ate them as well) and spread with a tempting picnic of Italian meats, cheeses and pickles. Meanwhile, on the other side of the plank Mr Liz tackled a hearty plate of baked chestnut mushrooms, served in a dish lined with what I at first thought was paper but turned out upon closer inspection (by my roaming fork/mouth) to be amazingly thin, crispy bread.
For mains, I went straight for the Fritto Misto, a dish I eat pretty much every day whenever I go to Italy - mixed crispy fried fish served with a home-made tartare sauce. This is a simple dish, but needs to be perfectly executed using only the very freshest fish and the lightest, crispiest coating of batter; and I have to say it was (almost) faultless - four different types of fish, including the most tender squid, playing a tantalising game of hide-and-seek amongst a nest of deep-fried vermicelli (they were actually quite poor at this - I caught every single last one). My one tiny complaint is that I would have liked another prawn - just one amongst such a generous overall portion seemed a little imbalanced. If you look closely at the picture below, you will see him near the front, shouting "I'm delicious! But alas, lonely for another plump tasty friend."
People who don't have room for the green stuff are of course not technically entitled to dessert, but as the toilets are in the basement, a good twenty-minute walk away, Mr Liz took full advantage of my absence, and I returned to find Tiramisu and an Ultimate Brownie on order (the former no doubt chosen, once again, because I don't like coffee and therefore cannot snaffle). My chocolate, raspberry and amaretto brownie was perfect - soft, squidgy, gooey...and all mine, which will teach people (Mr Liz) to order things with coffee in. All of this was washed down with a soft, plummy Montepulciano that was well-priced at £17.90 from the small but pleasingly Italian wine list. Service was friendly, striking that difficult balance between informal and professional, with staff who actually knew and cared about the food they were serving.
So, will I stop going to small, independent, proudly Northern restaurants? No. But I will eat here, again and again - this is an unpretentious and well-priced sort of place, full of cheery folk having a great night out, with a menu crammed with things that people actually want to eat. If anyone has the power to hold back the march of the mighty Oliver Empire, I'm afraid it really isn't me.
- Jamie's Italian is at 100 King Street, Manchester M2 4WU; tel: 0161 241 3901