I must be the only person in the country who has never watched the Naked Chef. After a hard night's eating out, the last thing I want to do is sit down and switch on a TV cook - it's like expecting a hooker to come home and watch the joy of sex.
Nevertheless he gets to you by osmosis - that open mouthed grin of his is so all over everything that he's hard to avoid. It's like passive smoking - lungfulls of second-hand Jamie strong enough to make you swear off him for life. There should be an antidote - a patch, culinary Nicorete or something, but now there's Monte's - a whole restaurant without one single Jamie-free area. Get the bloke outta here.
Annoyingly, from the chat we had on my first visit to Monte's where he is currently the executive chef (Ben O'Donogue, also ex River Cafe, is the head-chef) Our Jim does actually seem to be a genuinely sweet, hard-working, hands-on happy sort of chappy. I also liked the food. Yes, it lacks the energetic, joie de vivre, shove it all in, whack it in the oven, slap it on a plate enthusiasm of his telly persona, but, God, am I sick of over-sauced, fucked-around with food. The couple of meals I've had there have been a welcome relief - relatively simple and spare dishes, but with really good ingredients.
Some of the food's restraint may be down to the restaurant itself. It is not a lovely jubbly, informal local eatery. Monte's is part of a club with cigar bar and dreaded stinky humidor circulating at meal end. The restaurant is a large, brown shoebox of a place - hessian, dark wood, leather, bare walls and big windows overlooking Prada. It's boardroom meets seventies Ideal Home Exhibition, circa 1969. It looks like its been there for ever, but apparently the room used to feature an Arabische domed ceiling. I would say the current decor is probably an improvement, but it is sooo not Jamie. No mates, no loud lads, no jeans, no jollity.
It has ladies who lunch portions at gentlemen who gorge prices. My fritto misto contained two girolles, one leaf each of Swiss chard and lovage, one fantastic anchovy (though the menu promises them in the plural), two caper berries, a couple of sage leaves and sweetbreads - all deep fried in the briefest g-string of batters, though a tad too greasy for perfection. In the antipasto di verdure the seasonal market veg. was a single yellow pepper, red and green basil and one tomato albeit with an excellent, sensuously creamy bufala mozzarella on sourdough bruschetta. Both cost £8.50 - what, are they from Gucci or something? Did I miss the designer logo?
To follow, from the set menu at a more reasonable £22 for 3 courses, I had pan seared calves liver with a gorgeous mash of borlotti beans, some caramelised torpedo onions which, judging by their stunted length must have been suffering from feelings of inadequacy, perfect curls of crisp bacon and topped with a small dollop of mascarpone melting into the light Chianti juices. Heaven. And Liver isn't exactly on the wish list of things I want to overeat before I die.
My friend had fish of the day, John Dory with chunky runner beans, more basil, a sweet tomato sauce and fresh marjoram. Scottish langoustine as a starter was £14.50, Sirloin steak with fried potatoes was £18.50. Otherwise there was pasta in various forms, and a light yet gutsy spicy fish broth with red mullet, clams, mussels and crabmeat dumplings which I had on a previous occasion and enjoyed.
The restaurant is only open to the public for lunch - evenings are for club members which may account for the formality of most of the other diners. You might expect, if not rows of Vespas parked outside (there is only Jamie's at the moment), a huge swoop of sloaney handbags with attendant owners. But no. There were several business men, The German Cultural attachˇ, two severe women of the kind who ignore me when I meet them outside the school gates in Cadogan Square, another restaurant critic and a glamorous restaurant PR. In fact there were almost more of Mr Oliver's entourage than customers: Him in kitchen whites, seemingly styling food, and, amongst others, a girl in a permanent mobile phones armlock, and a photographer shooting in the dining room.
It almost put you off your pudding. Luckily, by now, I've eaten them all. The crumble is still too sweet, the lime in the lemon tart is refreshingly zingy and the tart tatin is a huge, toffee and almond extravaganza of perfumed pears atop delicate pastry.
'Didn't you like it?' asked our excellent waiter as he cleared my barely touched plate.
I loved it - but there is no way I'm going to sit and stuff my face with the slim Mr Foulkes, restaurant critic for ES magazine, and his young Audrey Hepburn lookalike companion /watching/italics me. Do I look like a person in a Beryl Cook painting?