Friday, November 22, 2013

Jamie's Italian: Welcome to Istanbul!

Dear readers,

Is there any of you out there who doesn't know who Jamie Oliver is? If so, this is him!

Jamie has been a phenomenon in the culinary world for a very long time with his down to earth cooking style & personality, cooking shows on cable TV broadcast around the world and of course, his many restaurants scattered worldwide!

When I found out last year that Jamie's Italian would be opening in Istanbul (his first branch in the Mediterranean region), just like everyone else I "oohed and aahed"  and couldn't wait for Zorlu Center, the newest and poshest shopping mall in Istanbul to open! In fact, I'm very fortunate that Zorlu is a mere 5 minute walk from my house... it would take me less time to get there, but the road is a little hilly from my apartment!

Alas, the opening date of Zorlu changed many many times and the shopping mall "officially" opened (all the retailers, restaurants and hotel are not open yet) on October 10, 2013. 

I will be writing about Zorlu Center another time, so let's get back to Jamie's Italian! The newest Italian eatery in Istanbul officially opened the last day of October... however, I was among the people who were invited by email to their "pre-opening" and made reservations to have dinner on October 26th with 4 friends. "Pre-opening" dinners were offered a 50% discount on all meals and drinks.

There was soooo much hype and hoopla that Jamie's was opening in Istanbul, so diners expectations were very high (prematurely I think!) that in the very short few weeks since Jamie's Italian opened in Istanbul, it has gotten it's fair share of highly undo criticism as well as unwarranted stupendous accolades from diners and/or the local press! It's a double edge sword so far... either diners love or hate Jamie's Italian as far as I can surmise from social media. 

To be quite frank, I wasn't totally impressed with the food/service during my first visit, however, I knew to expect this! You really can't expect a "new" established international eatery to meet all your expectations from day one. I truly do not believe this is possible! Although established, everything is still new... the wait staff, kitchen staff... the entire dynamics of a new culture and diner profile! It takes time for a restaurant to "settle" ... so I decided I wouldn't write about Jamie's until I had a chance to visit at least a few more times so that I can make a better judgement...

However, I was able to speed up this process a bit because I was invited to a "Chef's Table" or rather a "tasting" on Tuesday, November 19th when I had an opportunity to try an array of dishes, so now I am comfortable in sharing my views with you. 

The first time I went to Jamie's was for dinner and the second time for lunch... both times, the place was packed! 

The 2-story eatery has indoor and outdoor dining areas and seating for 400 people! 

First and foremost, Jamie's Italian is a "casual" style restaurant. You can dress comfortably, bring the kids and it is noisy. Just like it's name suggests, it is "Jamie's" Italian which basically means his "interpretation" of Italian cuisine, so if you are expecting very very "typical" style Italian food and/or pizza (not on the menu), you might be disappointed with some of the dishes. But, if you keep an open mind, you might actually enjoy some of his versions of Italian food... For example, on my first visit I wasn't crazy about the lasagna I had - not because it was bad, but because I prefer the classical version. Another example, among the main courses, there is a dish called "Beef Meatball" which is just one huge meatball served with a side of oozy polenta and black cabbage, so if you like "meatballs", be prepared to try something else, because my friend really liked it.

During our lunch on Tuesday, we tried lots of dishes and most I really enjoyed. The "guests" at the lunch were Kaya Demirer (also the owner of Frankie's Istanbul), Jamie's partner in Istanbul, two magazine writers, a representative from Jamie's Istanbul PR firm and myself. We also met Marcus (can't remember his last name - sorry!) who is the Operations Chef for Jamie's worldwide and is responsible for overseeing the kitchens in each country. 

Jamie's Italian doesn't have a huge menu, but there are still more than enough selections to choose from and we started off with a minestrone soup, which was very hearty with navy beans and a variety of vegetables in season...

The soup did need some more salt and unfortunately I didn't take the picture when it was first delivered. I didn't eat it right away, that's why you see the ring around the dish because I let it go cold a bit...

Next up were two "planks" as Jamie's call them... Cured Meat and Fish... 
Both of these "goodies" and my personal favorites, are served on a wood board and placed on 2 tomato can "stands" shown below, which is not only functional but a cute touch!

The Meat and Fish plank portions above are for 4 people and can be ordered per person at 22,5 TL and include excellent cured meats (fennel salami, pistachio mortadella, prosciutto and schiacciata picante), buffalo mozzarella and pecorino cheese with chili jam (excellent) and crunchy salad. The fish plank includes beetroot-cured salmon and a variety of shellfish in season. A Vegetable plank is also available at 12,5 TL/person.

We also tasted the "Crispy Squid" (17 TL) with garlicky mayo and "Fried Three Cheese Gnocchi with fiery arrabbiatta dip" (13 TL), which I forgot to take photos of... another appetizer we had before the pasta was "Posh Garlic Mushrooms on Toast" (13 TL)...

The mushrooms are pan-fried and placed on charred wholemeal levian rubbed with garlic and olive oil. The mushrooms were good, however, the bread does get a bit soggy and isn't crunchy.

The "piece de resistance" of our meal were the pasta and risotto dishes...

My personal favorites were the Putanesca (tomato sauce, capers, chilli, anchovies and Gaeta olives) and Prawn Linguine (fried garlicky prawns, shaved fennel, tomatoes, chilli and arugula - or 'rocket' as it is called in British english). Since I'm not a fan of squid ink pasta, I just took a small taste of the Crab Spaghetti, but those who enjoy it said it was good... but they said it just needed a little more "kick" or spice... Surprisingly, I also liked the wild truffle risotto although I do get a reaction to truffles (white and black). The pasta dishes are available in two sizes and range in price from 15 TL to 41 TL.  
Just when we were ready to say "no more", Marcus had other ideas and we were served two main courses...

The "Organic Chicken" (37 TL) portion is quite big and this is just a small portion of it but between the sauce (tomato, olive, chilli and caper), couscous and greens, it was very flavorful. The "Baked Salmon" (36 TL) was served with whipped lemony ricotta, but I personally found the salmon a bit dry.

Let's talk about the wine list now. I had a couple of glasses of Fontanafredda Barbera Italian red wine with my meal. The wine list is quite good for a casual style restaurant and all wines are also available by the glass. The price per bottle is moderate, but I personally feel (and I feel like this about a ton of other restaurants in Istanbul) that the wines are priced too high (20+ TL) by the glass.

At these types of "tastings", even if you are going to pop out of your pants, you still have to also taste the desserts and we were offered the following decadent treats...
Tiramisu, Tutti Frutti Lemon Meringue, Epic Brownie
If you like "tart" tastes, you will love the lemon meringue (16 TL) and chocoholics will definitely not be disappointed with the brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and caramelized popcorn (19 TL! However, the tiramisu (19 TL) does need some work (Marcus agrees) as it was a little too dry and needs more coffee/liqueur sauce.

Our lunch started at 1:00pm and I literally rolled out of Jamie's Italian at 3:30pm! I'm very happy that I was invited to get a "jump start" on tastings the dishes available at Jamie's Italian as it would have taken me a much longer time to try all these dishes over time.

My general view of Jamie's Italian? It is a very nice "casual" and "family" style restaurant; the dishes aren't "typical" Italian dishes (and that's okay); prices are moderate; service has improved since my first visit, but it definitely can be better and will I go back? Definitely! There are still many other dishes I want to try. In fact, I can go back just for the Meat and Fish planks! 

A final note... Jamie hasn't come to Istanbul yet to visit his latest venture, but I hear he plans on coming in early 2014! I hope I get a chance to meet him as a long time fan of his career!

Buono appetito! 

Note: Although quite big, it's not easy getting a table at Jamie's. Definitely try to make reservations (especially for the weekend) or be prepared to wait as a "walk-in". Also, you can also hang out at the bars and just order snacks and cocktails from their bar menu (which includes the antipasti and plank selections from the main menu) if you don't want a table and a big meal.

Jamie's Italian
Zorlu Center 
Levazım - Levent
Tel: (0212) 353 68 08

Stay well,