Restaurant Review – Jamie’s Italian, The Bell, Chequer Street, St Albans

Last weekend saw the opening of a new branch of Jamie’s Italian in St Albans, taking over the space that used to be The Bell Public House on Chequer Street. The Bell becomes Jamie Oliver’s 25th restaurant in the Jamie’s Italian chain and since it’s on my doorstep, I was eager to visit. I joined fellow St Albans food blogger Heidi Roberts for a pre-opening lunch on Saturday, ahead of the official opening on Sunday 5th February.

The Bell is a listed building, with a chimney dating back to the 18th century and other areas dating back to the 19th century. Having followed the press reports, it would seem that Jamie has had to work very hard to jump through strict regulatory hoops, whilst sticking to a brief of ‘enhancing the character and appearance’ of the St Albans conservation area. He has succeeded, and The Bell now stands proud again, offering 150-seats to discerning St Albans diners.

My first impressions were that many of the building’s original features have been kept, whilst being given the ever-more familiar ‘Jamie’s Italian’ stamp. As you walk in, on show is a fresh pasta station (all pasta is made in the house) and a long drinks bar to the left, stacked with Italian wines and Jamie’s organic house wine, stored in eco-friendly Tetra Pak cartons – it is later decanted. There is also fresh bread, tins of Italian tomatoes, and of course, the obligatory levels of Jamie merchandise and cookery books to buy.

At the front of the building (along Chequer Street) are two separate dining areas, both with exposed brick walls and restored fireplaces, offering a more traditional and cosy atmosphere, a bit more like a pub. The main dining area has a more urban feel, sitting directly underneath a large glass roof through the middle and a timber-vaulted ceiling to the right-hand side, with windows looking out into the ‘premium-retail’ area known as The Maltings. Tables are a mixture of wood with metal chairs, or metal with wooden chairs, with bright red benches around the perimeter and gun-metal, painted walls.

As well as the bar, there is also an open dessert and cold-starter preparation area, adorned with chillis and garlic, market-style vegetable crates and hanging salami and San Daniele hams, and further on, a very busy, semi-open kitchen. The service area is bustly, but diners are kept well out of the way.

Onto the menu, the very first thing I spotted was Burrata with chilli and mint (£6.25), a fresh Italian cheese, made from mozzarella and cream. It’s all the rage, don’t you know?! In any case, it is very welcome in St Albans and I hope it stays here.

Ahead of that, there was, in fact, a selection of Nibbles or small bites that I had missed, such as an Italian bread selection (£3.75) or the ‘World’s best olives on ice’ (£3.75) – which did look quite cool.

I had to go for the Burrata (and I wasn’t disappointed) but I was hugely tempted by the Autumn Bruschetta – Beetroot ripple, smashed pumpkin, scamorza and cavalo nero (£8.95 to share), so I’ll have to go back for that. We also tried the Crispy Squid (£5.75) – not especially crispy, but the garlicky mayo was indeed, as described, very garlicky! Because we were feeling greedy, we also tried Jamie’s Funky Chips with fresh garlic and parsley (£3.25) but our waiter told us that the Famous Polenta Chips (£3.45) were his favourite.

The planks (£6.85 a head) seemed particularly popular too looking around, small piles of cured meats, Italian cheeses, or sliced, char-grilled, seasonal vegetables served with pickles and chilli jam. I also noted the Artisan meat boards (£4.45 each) of English wild boar salami, Truffle salami and Levonetto tondo, again, to try next time. The planks themselves are long wooden boards, held up by two tins of tomatoes on your table, creating a little bridge ideal for picking at and sharing.

Mains are divided into Pasta and Secondi (Meat or Fish.) We tried the Meatball carbonara, which was made with a fresher, lemon-cream sauce, San Daniele ham, meatballs and rigatoni pasta (£7.25/£11.25.) I enjoyed it, I was happy with the flavour, I didn’t find it too lemony or too salty and the pasta was perfectly cooked. Heidi ordered the Prosciutto spaghetti (£6.25/£9.75) which was a little dry, but well-flavoured with Sicilian lemon, fresh parsley and strips of San Daniele ham.

Making a nuisance of ourselves again and peering across onto other tables, we spotted the Seaside risotto (£8.95/£15.95) which was served on a very large plate, and garnished with clams, mussels, prawns and Gurnard. The Truffled Turkey Milanese (£12.25.) is highlighted as ‘Jamie’s Favourite’ on the menu and was a hit amongst diners. It looked like a huge piece of flattened turkey, stuffed with Fontina cheese and Prosciutto ham, topped with a soft fried free-range egg.  The portion sizes all seemed to be generous and crucially, plates were taken away clean!

Jamie’s Dolci, or desserts were flying out fast, too. We wanted to order the Amalfi lemon curd slice (£4.95) but they were out, so instead we went for the Peach and almond tart (£4.95) and the JI Warm Brownie (£4.95) served with fresh raspberries, crushed Amaretti biscuits and vanilla ice-cream. Both desserts were substantial, and in typical Jamie Oliver-fashion, pretty tasty.

Overall Impressions

Having visited the old Bell, which was a dark and dingy alco-pop filled noisy pub, I’m pleased to say that Jamie’s Italian is a vast improvement. Jamie himself stopped by earlier on Monday to give the place a once over, showing that he is not as far removed from his business ventures as some might say. Gennaro Contaldo, Jamie’s long-standing mentor also popped in on Thursday. Gennaro is credited for training the chefs at Jamie’s Italian, making sure they are up to speed and ready to go. The restaurant itself, as with all the others in the chain, will be managed by Jamie’s team.

Upstairs has also been renovated to a high standard, with posh toilets (Crapper, no less), white washbasins with vintage taps and grey-polished tiles. There is a disabled toilet and baby-change on the ground floor and though the main entrance is at the front, there is a ramp at the back for disabled access, too.

We did find it to be extremely busy and whilst the entire restaurant was packed, the tables in the centre of the dining room were particularly crowded, with, as you would expect in St Albans, lots of parents with kids. I’ll have to go back with mine to try out the children’s menu as I was too busy being a lady-who-lunches and forgot to ask!

On Saturday Jamie’s Italian was well staffed, although this was pre-opening, so the staff were technically still in training and the restaurant itself may have been artificially busy. We lunched for over two hours, so it wasn’t by any means a quick lunch, but we did have three courses. Our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable, at one point, he started telling us about the village that the pigs had lived in that were now the San Daniele ham hanging above the counter! The tables at the front (looking out onto Chequer Street) appear to offer a little more room, but you don’t get to see as much of the action.  

Despite the fact that St Albans is already saturated with chain restaurants, I have a feeling that Jamie’s Italian will be a popular local hang-out, particularly if Jamie’s cheeky charm is allowed to shine through his team and his staff are able to relax into service as the hype subsides. I’ll definitely be going back, I admire the ethos behind the restaurant (fresh food, house made pasta, seasonality in the menu, reasonably priced) and I’m pleased we have a Jamie’s here now.

It is possible to book at table at Jamie’s Italian on-line, though they also operate a walk-in policy and will try and seat you, if possible.

We paid for our own meals, though we were given a 50% discount on our food as a soft-opening. With wine, starters, mains, an extra side and desserts the price would have been around £35.00 a head. 

Thanks Heidi for taking me along!

Jamie’s Italian
22 Chequer Street
St Albans
Herts
AL1 3YD

Tel: 01727 221 266

Monday – Saturday
12.00 noon – 11.00pm

Sunday
12.00 noon – 10.30pm

Have you eaten at a Jamie’s Italian restaurant? What did you think? Would you go again? 

Comments

  1. says

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  2. says

    Wow! This post is really informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing this to us. The foods are really mouth watering. Also, the place, table arrangements and decorations are cool. Thumbs up!!

  3. says

    I’ve been once, to the Islington branch. The Autumn Bruschetta was the best thing I ate – loved the earthiness of those vegetables with the smokiness of the cheese. If you go back try it – though seems bit odd eating ‘Autumn’ in February! I also had the brownie dessert which while tasty made me laugh as looked like it was decorated by a little kid. Overall I thought it was OK. I think if I went back I’d just have a seasonal starter like the bruschetta, and a Chapel Down beer (love that they serve that) in the bar area.

  4. Stacey says

    Have eaten lunch at the Bath restaurant (twice in one week), dinner at Milton Keynes and had lunch at the Bluewater soft opening. Of the three Bath is my favourite, so much so we are going back next weekend for dinner.
    Would say there are differences between the branches and probably wouldn’t go back to the Bluewater one as although the service and food were good, the layout leaves a lot to be desired.
    Next time you go back, try the polenta chips – I love them!!

    • Ren says

      Hi Stacey, we are going to Bath this week! I’m so glad you’ve mentioned that as I wouldn’t have checked. We’ll visit JO in Bath too then and see what we think ;-)

      • Stacey says

        Hope you have a great time in Bath. I’m looking forward to our long weekend and having some time to browse the gadgets at Kitchens shop in Quiet Street and choosing some cheeses in Paxton & Whitfield.

  5. says

    I’ve not been to Jamies Italians at all, the only meal I’ve had at one of his places is at the Fifteen restaurant in Cornwall. That was very good, so really ought to visit one of the others…

    Thanks for your enthusiasm for my new ice cream challenge, by the way, so kind of you and I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

    • Ren says

      Hi Kavey, I haven’t been to Fifteen, but again, impressed by the ethos of employing young trainee chefs etc Jamie always seem to do that well.

      Looking forward to the ice-cream challenge! My next post features raspberry ripple and basil cupcakes and I bet that would make a nice flavour of ice-cream so I’ll have to experiment!

  6. says

    Hi Ren,
    Have to say I’m not a big fan of Jamie’s Italian going on our two visits to the one in Cardiff. The first time the service was dire with our starters and main course arriving at the same time-an hour and a half after we had ordered. We decided to give it another go and went for a second time. The service was better but not great. For non meat eaters the menu options were quite limited. We had the veggie plank to start which was nice but swimming in oil so much so it ran off the plank all over the table and then off onto the floor and my handbag. The main course was so incredibly salty we sent it back and the choice of veggie sides was very small which we were surprised at considering the emphasis Jamie places on growing veg. The best bit were the desserts which were nice. All in all I don’t think I would be rushing back for a third visit but perhaps other branches are better…

    • Ren says

      Hiya, oh that’s a shame to hear. Looking at the menu I have, there is a little bit more variety for vegetarians, Borlotti Bean Bruschetta, Baked Mushrooms, Sicilian Spaghetti Fritters, Chips (x 3 kinds!) Crispy Rice Balls, only one pasta (mushroom) and some sides. Hmn, if you were to take out the cheese element (Parmesan non-vegetarian, Mozzarella) you would be a bit limited…Fish eaters would be ok but I can see your point.

      Next time I go, I will go as a vegetarian and ask what they can adapt/offer :-)

      The service issue seems to be a bit of a theme…

  7. says

    Ren – it was a pleasure spending time with you over a relaxed lunch. Great too having a chance to pick your brains for blogging tips. I will be posting my review over the weekend. Must ‘do lunch’ again soon.

    • Ren says

      Hiya, yes it was lovely to have such a leisurely lunch! Usually I wolf my food down because the kids are with me. Osprey next?

  8. says

    Wow, sounds like a fantastic place! Those photos have me drooling. I wonder what the chances of getting one in Newcastle are?
    Great Review by the way, got a real sense of the place. x

    • Ren says

      Thank you so much Nelly. I always find it hard as it is such a personal perspective! Hmn, you’re right, no Jamie’s in Newcastle – it can’t be long?!

  9. says

    I have never had the opportunity to eat at any of Jamie’s Restaurants. I can well imagine that any of them would be a great experience and the food quite tasty. It looks like you had a very wonderful and delicious lunch experience! xxoo

    • Ren says

      Thank you Marie, I hope you get to try one soon. They always seem to be very popular, Westfields have a pager system to allow you to go shopping and come back and the Oxford branch had a big queue outside the door so we never got to try that one. I’m pleased there is one in my town, hopefully I can pop in when it is quieter. Have a lovely weekend and thanks for stopping by :-)

  10. Sheba Promod says

    Not managed to visit the St Albans branch yet but I have been to the islington branch where the food was good but to be honest service was very slow. The layout of the restaurant itself probably didnt help as its do wide spread but even with the large number of staff we still found it rather slow and sadly the waiters had to be reminded about our mains too!

    Having said this the starters and dessert I had were delicious (sweet mini chilli peppers and Amalfie curd slice). Because of these, I’m persuaded to try the st Albans branch to sample a few of the others!

    • Ren says

      I agree, I have only ever been to the Westfield branch, at the shopping centre, and at times had to really stamp my little feet to get attention! Towards the end of the meal I did feel the attention slopping away a bit, but as I said, it was technically training so I will give the staff the benefit of that.

      We really wanted to try the Amalfi curd slice…next time! Hope you get to visit soon and thanks for the comment :-)

  11. says

    Glad you liked the long-awaited Burrata! The whole experience sounds great. I bet those plank things are a nightmare for the waiters when the place is busy. I hope for your sake that the restaurant is a success. In current economic conditions this is far from certain. Still, in gloomy times the best way to cheer oneself up is to indulge in a bit of good food! :)

    • Ren says

      Hi Mark, I know, how lucky am I having a local supply of Burrata!? I was so pleased to see it on the menu. The planks are cool, they allow the food to look quite funky – they definitely have the JO stamp on them.

      St Albans has been hit hard, with shops closing everywhere, even large stores as well as independents, but for some reason the restaurant trade is good and places always seem to be busy. I’d like to go back again at a quieter time, to soak a bit more of it in. Hope Jamie does well here.

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