Jamie Oliver Pumps Up Volume With Help From U.S. Friend

Jamie Oliver's Union Jacks
The latest branch of Jamie Oliver's Union Jacks in Covent Garden Market, London. It would be a great location if less noisy. Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Where do you go when you want to create a British pizza? Phoenix, of course.

Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks is a new chain of retro restaurants that follows Jamie’s Italian. He turned to Arizona, where chef Chris Bianco made his name with Pizzeria Bianco. New York-born Bianco is a great choice.

The wood-fired pizzas -- or British flatbreads as they were initially called -- are very good. The dough is made in-store rather than distributed from a central location and the toppings are mainly British, from the cheese through to the meat.

The latest branch opened last week in Covent Garden, the second location in central London after nearby Holborn. The dishes are strong, the prices are acceptable and the service, particularly in Holborn, is friendly, and efficient. What could go wrong?

Are you listening, Jamie? It’s the noise.

At Holborn, music played so loud I sat outside until forced indoors by the rain. At Covent Garden, the amplified patter of entertainers comes over loud and clear. At lunch, the decibel reading bounced along above 80 and peaked near 90. That’s the kind of level at which hearing protection is required.

(The alternative at Covent Garden is to sit in a basement.)

If it were possible to grit your teeth while consuming pizza, I would recommend you do that at least once. The bases are light and crisp while the toppings are big on flavor. Take the Red Ox, at 12.50 pounds ($20): Oxtail and brisket are slow braised in Worcestershire sauce and paired with Sparkenhoe red Leicester cheese, with watercress and fresh horseradish on top.

Red Ox

There’s so much enjoyment to be had from this combo of tastes and textures, it reminds me of the early days of kebabs in London. As a student, I could afford the cheapest about once every two weeks, and still remember that meaty, chili, onion flavor bomb. The Red Ox is as big, only a tad more refined.

Other options include the fine Old Spot: slow-roast shoulder of pork, quince and Bramley sauce, Cropwell Bishop Stilton, crackling and watercress. There’s the Chilli Freak if you like it hot; or Fish Pie, with smoked Pollock, heritage potatoes, sweet leeks and Welsh cockles.

Oliver and Bianco work closely with cheese-makers and other suppliers. There’s also support for British wines. The Chapel Down sparkling English rose at 25 pounds a bottle is delicious and delicate and a great bargain. It’s 18 pounds a bottle if you buy it direct from the vineyard.

Fish Fingers

The rest of the menu at Union Jacks is fine, if less distinctive. It’s simple fare such as fish fingers with tartare sauce (5.50 pounds) and garlic mushrooms with mayonnaise. There are also British grills, including Indian-spiced chicken with Bombay potatoes, carrot salad and coriander yoghurt.

I never tasted anything bad, and there are sure to be fans for retro desserts such as black forest gateau and sticky treacle tart.

Best of all for these days, Union Jacks need not be expensive if you order with a little care. Lunch for three adults and two kids came to less than 100 pounds, including a bottle of sparkling wine. On the other hand, a lunch for two cost 90 pounds once we’d ordered starters, mains, sides and coffee, plus fizzy water and that fizzy wine.

Union Jacks doesn’t serve Britain’s best pizzas any more than Jamie’s Italian the best Italian fare. Oliver inhabits the mid-market, where quality and value intersect. Across the range of cooking shows, books and restaurants, he is the chef who is doing most to raise everyday standards of eating in the U.K.

Plus, he’s a good guy.

He deserves to be heard.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? About 20-25 pounds a head.

Sound level? 11. (That’s 80 decibels, plus.)

Inside tip? Order the sparkling rose, unless you’re 17.

Special feature? British pizza.

Will I be back? If I can find a quiet table.

Date place? Yes.

Rating? **1/2.

What the Stars Mean:
****         Incomparable food, service, ambience
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor.

Union Jacks, Unit 5C, Covent Garden Market, London, EC2E 8RF. Information: +44-20-3640-7086 or http://www.unionjacksrestaurants.com/

Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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