Jamie Oliver MBE graduated from the line of the River Café and into the collective consciousness in 1999 with the debut of The Naked Chef, a tv show that literally changed the face of food television. With a face like a slapped arse and a mouth like a torn pocket we watched him vespa around London town, popularising elisions and democratising glugs of things. Blair’s New Labour was leading Britannia into a new Millennium of endless possibilities, B*Witched dominated the pop charts and everything was pukka.
A likeable character from the jump, his cheekie chappie persona translated rather well across international markets (an estimated £180 million on book sales alone) and a brand behemoth was born. To his credit, even as he became horribly overexposed he continued to use his profile to nurture and promote genuinely well-meaning projects, such as the non-profit Fifteen restaurant project and his school dinners initiative. Noble endeavours both. He has sullied his whites in recent years after one of his companies went into administration, but hey – you can’t make an (easy cheesey!) omelette without breaking a few employment laws, right?
I’m told that there’s an outpost of Jamie’s Italian in a southside mall but Chequer Lane on Exchequer Street appears to be positioned above that chain. Prices reflect that ambition too. There’s a large shiny bar braying about cocktails on the left of the space and a lurid green wainscotted dining room to the right, lit for octogenarians. The place is ‘all about celebrating…Irish ingredients and hospitality’ and that’s great. The list of suppliers/producers is actually quite impressive. Saying that your restaurant is ‘all about’ separating tourists from sums of money doesn’t have the same ring to it. There’s a bottle of wine produced in Lusk for €105 on the list. I made the producer’s acquaintance many years ago – a wiry moustachioed man with the likeable bearing of a nineteen-fifties scoutmaster and a passion for growing fruit. His Orchard Glow – spiced apple juice bolstered with a belt of Calvados – used to keep the Temple Bar Food Market moving on gelid January mornings. With the best will in the world however I can’t see a scenario where I’m laying down a ton to roll the dice on a bottle of ‘Ireland’s first commercially available (Irish) wine’. Sorry David. There’s little of interest by the glass.
Many of the starters are perfectly fine. The Crab Toast would benefit greatly from having some brown meat spun through but I doubt that they are breaking down whole specimens downstairs. I enjoyed a Scallop Crudo with Orange and Radicchio (€16) although nobody else did. Whipped Cod’s Roe is smooth and smoky. Crispy Squid is both of those things. The Mixed (Robata!) Grill at the centre of the menu should be something of showstopper but there’s no sizzle, no sign of succulence. It is a platter of well-sourced browns that doesn’t much look like the one on the landing page. €59 buys you a sliced Flat Iron Steak (featherblade) a couple of thick lamb chops, a redundant Cumberland Sausage, lots of liver and a length of bone. There’s the unmistakable wooly mouth-feel of sous vide cooking from the lamb and beef. I might overlook that if the pricing wasn’t quite so enthusiastic. The steak is deeply flavoured and cooked as requested. I hadn’t realised hitherto that it was possible to overcook bone marrow but the kitchen here has cracked it. It is virtually bone-dry. I poke around uselessly in the cavity. Sides are less successful – Mashed potatoes with Jersey (where?) Cream is unforgivably gluey, a Kale Salad suffers from a surfeit of vinegar.
Superstitious woo-woo types have long held that on Halloween night the veil between the realms of the living and the dead is lifted, that passage becomes possible. I’m here to tell you that they’ve been right all along. I was thinking of something clever when it dawned on me that the piece of lamb in my gullet had ceased its digestive transit. I attempt to swallow, once, twice, three times before deciding that it’s time to freak the fuck out and take to my feet. While my current wife is making a suspiciously half-hearted attempt to Heimlich me, one of my hands clutches at my collar while the other rains blows upon my chest. As the imagined strains of harp and lyre began to wash over me it crosses my mind that I would be unable to move toward the light because Chequer Lane is more powerfully illuminated than the light of everlasting life itself.
Through intercession dark or divine, or by simply refusing to die in a Jamie Oliver restaurant, I reached within and willed the bolus southward. I’d like to tell you that as I composed myself I vowed to make some changes in my life but the dominant thought was whether I could pass off the incident as a ghoulish Halloween-themed prank. I decided that no one would buy it. Red rather than blue faced, I put my profound mortification aside and like the pro I am, ordered a glass of whiskey to calm my soul and continued.
Service is warm and personable, from the Tucci-chanelling floor manager to our charming and attentive server. It’s probably the best thing about the place. If you’re offended by the food here then you’re too easily offended. If you have a problem with the proposition well, vote with your feet. The ceiling for such enterprises is to send out competently executed dishes that nod toward modishness but won’t challenge or leave you too gassy to trawl the shops afterwards. The floor is The Ivy. It broadly succeeds on those terms. So there we are – a review that nobody wanted of a restaurant that nobody needs. As I returned from the restroom two Italian ladies who’d had front row seats to my one-man-horrorshow raise their hands as if I’d produced a pistol. ‘You need to put hands up next time’. Next time, I think, I’ll choke someplace else.
Chequer Lane by Jamie Oliver
25-27 Exchequer St
Words: Conor Stevens