Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen was probably the first proper London restaurant I ever went to. Flashback to 2012: I was the wide-eyed tourist visiting London for the first time, I was rather excited to be catching up with friends for lunch, and at the restaurant of one of those telly chefs no less. Ah, how blissfully green I was back then! Dishes were not photographed before consumption in those days, so I hardly remember anything about the food but I do recall being impressed by the concept and operation of Fifteen.
Over four years later, I’m still impressed. It all started with fifteen young apprentices in this restaurant, all given a chance, not a handout, to gain some skills in the hospitality industry and improve their lives. No matter what you think of Jamie Oliver – sell out, obnoxious motormouth, anti-sugar tyrant, pukka tucker himself – the idea behind this venture, the difference it’s probably made, the standard of food it’s churning out, is all very admirable.
Speaking of the food; the menu was so full of appeal that my initial plan of ordering the Chef’s Choice menu was almost thwarted. The style of food at Fifteen is one that sings to us: seasonal, well sourced, well prepared ingredients, all cleverly paired here and there. In the end, with some arm-twisting, I convinced a certain someone that the tasting menu was the way forward as smaller plates also meant more plates. I marked my little win with a sip of a punchy gin cocktail and a bite of the larger than necessary onion tart amuse bouche. It was a messy few mouthfuls, but worth the unsightly spillage.
First out of the blocks was a silky ball of burrata. I’m partial to this smooth, clean-tasting cheese, but only when it’s the good quality stuff; being lumbered with a poor replica is about as exciting as eating a wad of damp tissues. There was no danger of that fate here, and the pairing with grelot onions and smoked walnuts actually brought the cheese to life. It’s not a combination I’ve ever had before, but was nice change to the usual bedfellows of tomatoes and rocket.
My excitement levels went up a notch at the sight of the Dorset crab, courgette, wild fennel, creme fraiche and cobnut concoction. So picture-perfect, so whimsically stacked, so quickly devoured. I tried to pace myself, I really did, to savour the sweetness of the crab, the bite from the courgettes running throughout it, and even the potent yet subtle fennel. But I basically blinked and it was gone, and there was no chance of swindling any from a certain someone either.
Small pillows of crispy gnocchi brought more approving murmurs to our table. They were lovely when tossed around with spinach, salsify and hazelnut vinaigrette, but we would have been just as happy with a bowl of them on their own. Move over chips, can I get these as a side instead? Actually, they would have been perfect to soak up the remaining sauce from the short rib dish we had next.
The short rib passed the ‘could cut it with a spoon’ test and was undoubtedly a certain someone’s favourite dish. Slow cooked meat (essentially any form of stew) and mashed potatoes have been his favourite foods since he was about seven, and this most likely reinforced that love. The accompanying onions, and smoked garlic and cheddar through the mash were a nice touch, but personally I would have liked a thicker sauce… what can I say, I’m a sucker for a jus (or any old gravy, because I’m really not that classy).
Up to this point the dishes had been arriving promptly, a little too promptly at times for my liking. I asked our waiter for a longer pause and he obliged, but not before bringing us a small sorbet palate cleanser. I like these pauses; I could tell you it is because I’m oh so sophisticated and appreciate the ability to cleanse my oh so refined palate, but the truth is, they’re almost always sorbets and I love sorbet. Having confessed that, it’s obvious that my cleansed palate and I were very satisfied with the interlude.
When we were done with pausing, we launched straight into the curiously green dessert with the even more curious element of a tarragon cake. We loosely remembered enjoying tarragon in a dessert once before however we were still cautious. Most of us are used to the herb with fish or poultry, but in a cake and served with an apple mousse foam and Granny Smith sorbet? It works. It’s a cheffy move I wouldn’t try at my own dinner parties, but when you next see if on a menu, try it. It really works and was one of the tastiest and most interesting desserts we’ve had in some time!
Fifteen exceeded our expectations. And no, I haven’t gone all soft in the name of charity. It’s such a well-oiled operation, I only had uncharitable thoughts about how I might have swiped some of a certain someone’s food while he wasn’t looking. This was the first restaurant in Jamie Oliver’s empire, opened fifteen years ago. Since then, many others have opened and closed, many more books written, many frypans flogged, but still Fifteen remains. And rightly so.
Have you ever dined at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in either Old Street or Cornwall?
According to the website, some changes are afoot for the Apprentice Programme which will see apprentices in restaurants all over the country, not just in the Fifteen restaurants. Whatever happens, I do hope the programme continues to be a success!