4 Central St. Giles Piazza, WC2H 8AB Tel: 020 3597 7888
Cost per person without wine: £22
Sometimes moments come along that give you a real sense of your own mortality. For the most part they’re fairly clichéd, like realising you can’t name a single song in the top 10, or that people less than half your age can comprehensively beat you at video games. But sometimes they have a more human face. Sometimes that face is pudgy and more than a little slappable. Sometimes it is the face of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Sitting in the first of a planned chain of Union Jacks (sans apostrophe) restaurants, I experienced middle age. Suede, Cast and the Bluetones played on the stereo; the dessert menu included Marathon Bar icecream and arctic rolls. It’s aimed at children of the 80s, who listened to Oasis as teenagers and remember a time before Snickers. This restaurant, fronted by a middle-aged, middle-class celebrity chef, is aimed at me.
As the name suggests, Jacks is a celebration of Britishness, albeit a very narrowly defined – probably apocryphal – Britain where people use tea-cosies and eat fish and chips on Blackpool beach. The décor seems to be based on a public school canteen: the menu is pinned on a giant letter board above the open kitchen; mis-matched, shabby chic seats are covered in stickers from teen magazines; the napkins – emblazoned with Union Jacks’ heraldic logo – bring to mind the Keep Calm and Carry On wartime posters.
The space at Central St Giles is hardly ideal restaurant fodder – it’s a vast, aircraft-hanger of concrete and glass, with gloomy, cavernous ceilings.
Careful interior design to some extent mitigates this, with a giant central kitchen pushing the tables into orbit around it, making you feel less like you’re dining in a cathedral. The floor-to-ceiling windows circling the entire restaurant also draw your eye outwards, although this isn’t necessarily a good thing – the Central St Giles landscape is hardly inspiring, with Steven Gontarski’s soulless abstract sculpture only slightly more interesting than the expanse of grey paving slabs.
In keeping with the British “theme” (and theme feels like the right word), and with Oliver’s well-publicised personal agenda, most of the ingredients are locally sourced, with their provenance listed in a section of the menu. So what are your options? Yorkshire puddings and gravy? Steak and kidney pie? Fish and chips? Nope: pizza. While you won’t actually find the word anywhere in the restaurant (they sell flatbreads), Union Jacks is essentially Italian food with a twist, which isn’t surprising when you learn head chef Chris Bianco is the owner of Arizona’s (apparently) renowned Pizzeria Bianco.
That’s not to say it isn’t good. The bowl of chilli mussels I had to start was so delicious I used a discarded shell to scoop up the leftover sauce (given the school canteen theme, I figured this was probably within the bounds of acceptability). The garlic mushrooms were a little light on garlic and heavy on fat but were perfectly edible.
Next came the pizza (OK, flatbread). I went for the Woodman, topped with wild mushrooms, red onions and fennel. The base was crafted to perfection, crispy on the surface and doughy underneath, with a hint of charcoal where the bread has risen in the wood-fired oven. It’s simple, tasty food – exactly the kind of thing Oliver is famous for creating.
Dessert is where Jacks lets the British theme run away with itself. The menu includes bitter chocolate mousse with “Gary Baldy” biscuits, Earl Grey tea flavoured icecream and Eton Mess. I tried the Marathon icecream, served in an 80s-style silver goblet, which bore little resemblance to its namesake and came garnished with what appeared to be an inedible cardboard stick with raisins stuck to it. The arctic roll was only marginally better, with the heap of tart berries overpowering the dull chocolate icecream. While it scores points for nostalgia – this is exactly how I remember arctic roll tasting – there is a reason I haven’t tried it in 15 years.
To end the meal you can forego the usual coffee in favour of a “builder’s tea”. I didn’t: while it may be a talking point, there is no substitute for a thick dose of Italian caffeine after a meal.
As you’d expect from Oliver, Union Jacks runs like clockwork – he’s done this all before. The waiting staff are polite, attentive and very, very pretty. It’s great fun – the music, the menu, the thoughtful little touches like badges arriving with your bill – are all talking points.
The food won’t blow you away but with the bill coming in at around the same as a Pizza Express – mine was under £50 including a cocktail – you certainly won’t be complaining.