David Ellis reviews Jamie Oliver Catherine St: Oh Jamie, this is like a musical with a star who just can’t sing

Oliver’s second chance: Jamie Oliver is positioning this as his comeback, but it leaves a lot to be desired (David Loftus)
Oliver’s second chance: Jamie Oliver is positioning this as his comeback, but it leaves a lot to be desired (David Loftus)

"I don’t want to name-drop,” a pal said, as he finished a story about partying with will.i.am. “But Andrew Lloyd Webber said to me last week, ‘look, it’s Jamie Oliver. He’ll automatically get a spanking from the press.’ Be kind."

Perhaps. As it is, Google News records 64 positive Oliver press stories from the past week which — call me a cynic — smacks of publicity bods flooding the internet in the hope of hiding bad reviews. Banning Turkey Twizzlers aside (worse than Maggie and the milk, I reckon), Oliver’s been a target since the 2019 crumbling of his British restaurant empire, which left debts of £83 million and a reported 1,000 staff out of work. The chef himself was ruined.

Wait, hang on, sorry. He actually took a £5.2 million payout that year while settling into his new £6 million Elizabethan pile. “I don’t know if you guys have ever had a second chance,” he said sombrely at Catherine St’s launch, “but this is mine.”

Given it’s a second chance where Lloyd Webber is the landlord, there were plenty of dry eyes in the house. And yet Oliver helped change the way many of us see food. His recipes work. He’s likeable, sincere, appealingly emotional. “It would make much more of a story, really,” I said as we shivered up to the door, “if this were a rave review”.

Oliver grew up in his parents’ pub, was on the pass at 14, and Catherine St is serving food inspired by those days, and those that followed at the River Café, Fifteen and Barbecoa. “I don’t want it to be cool. I want it to be predictable,” he says.

Predictable is often throupled with safe and comfortable, and here there’s a sense of all three. Black-and-white celebrity photographs fill the walls. There are leather booths, lots of brushed brass, wine bottles left temptingly on the side. Lighting is low, despite one contraption that looks like a neon kitchen maid. But styling is the strong point, and even the menu is good-looking, white pages with words in red and blue. In a forgiving mood, this is all a soft nod to the intended British spirit. “It’s like a London-themed airport menu,” was a less generous assessment I heard last week.

 (David Loftus)
(David Loftus)

Still, the menu’s breadth is spot on for a restaurant in Theatreland — pasta, pub classics, enough from a grill. Decent puddings. Wine from £25. Prices are fair generally — half the starters under a tenner, a handful of mains under £19. But, as sometimes happens in Theatreland, this was rather like seeing a Hollywood star in a West End musical, only to find out they can’t sing.

Service I’ll write off as teething problems, but Christ, someone needs to have a word — do you like being tapped over and over by waiters? I felt like a f***ing tambourine. Rejecting a cocktail was a mistake — it might have helped pass the 50 minutes it took for the first dish to arrive. Why the wait?

Mushrooms on toast — brioche really, its sweetness helping to temper all the salt — need not take long. Perhaps the time went into the seafood cocktail’s looks, because evidently it wasn’t in the cooking; sliced, the prawn was ghoulish, unappealing.

“How are the greens?” Twiggs asked. “Fine, fine” I said. “Though I don’t know why they cooked them in the dishwasher.”

David Ellis

Another inexplicable wait, and then an ode from Oliver to his dad, Trevor’s chicken, which felt fittingly well done. Chicken came poached and Wellington-ed, with a wholegrain mustard sauce that had its heat tempered by cream; an easy dish and an indicator of what might have been. Hash brown chips, the same: little Quality Chop House rip-offs, and overcooked, but nothing that couldn’t be tweaked.

A congealed mess of short rib would have worked better with a softer sauce, which was as rich and heavy as much of the Cabinet. “How are the greens?” Twiggs asked. “Fine, fine” I said. “Though I don’t know why they cooked them in the dishwasher.”

Staff left it ’til we were full to rush out the puddings, the little tykes. Nemesis cake worked (children will adore it), but the St Clement’s tart — lemon meringue, with orange added — tasted a little like there’d been an accident with the Cif.

Look, it’s Jamie. You don’t expect the world; you just expect it to be fine. It probably will be. Has to be. And I suspect we experienced an off-night.“ What do you reckon?” I asked Twiggs, as we walked home. “Two stars?” “Why so generous?” she said, straight-faced. I suppose I was thinking of my pal. Be kind, and all that.

6 Catherine Street, WC2B 5JY. Meal for two plus drinks and service about £180. Open Monday to Sunday, noon-10pm, jamieolivercatherinest.com