I’d normally be very wary of dining in chain restaurants and although it seems like Jamie Oliver wants to do the right thing in his ventures I was still somewhat sceptical when we booked a table for my dad’s sixtieth birthday. There was a large group of us (sixteen in total) so we only had a limited menu to choose with three courses and a glass prosecco costing a quite reasonable €40 a head. We also had to give everyone’s selections in advance during the reservation process but I think that’s fair enough for such a big booking at Christmas time.
The only choices for starters we either vegetarian or meat platters of antipasti and I think everyone went for the latter: it was a pretty standard selection of cheese, prosciutto and salami (including a particularly nice fennel one) but the highlight by far was the mozzarella which, Toonsbridge excepted, was the best mozzarella I’ve ever had in Ireland. The most surprising thing for me was even though it was imported and presumably a few days old it tasted so fresh and creamy, a testament to the quality of the restaurant’s sourcing.
My main of porchetta stuffed with salami and raisins in a vin santo sauce was also excellent. While there were supposed to be some truffles in there too I couldn’t really taste any; it was probably for the best as the long braised pork (twenty hours apparently) didn’t need any other distracting flavours. The only other option I got to try was the spatchcocked chicken with tomato, caper and olive sauce and it was fine but not a patch on the porchetta.
The only misstep of the night was my dessert, I’d ordered the fruit tiramisu which just didn’t work: if you’re going to mess with a classic dish it really has to be a complete reimagining or at least a big improvement and this was neither. Much better was the panna cotta with winter berries, a deceptively simple dish that is often horribly interpreted by restaurants here. Menu envy aside, the meal finished with a tray of mince pies rather unusually made with filo pastry but unlike the tiramisu it was a far more successful experiment.
Service throughout was exemplary, it’s not easy to cater for such large groups especially ones with an 18-month-old child and even though my parents were half an hour late the staff kept everything moving along brilliantly. We even had the table for a good hour and a half after we’d finished our food when a lot of places would be putting you under pressure so they could turn the table. All in all, a very impressive operation that meant my initial trepidation was clearly unfounded.