Big-name chefs seem to gravitate towards this city like moths to light, which makes it strange that Jamie Oliver has waited as long as he has to open a restaurant in Dubai. This said, while there’s a Jamie’s Italian in nearly every major British city, the Festival City outlet of the franchise is only the second to open outside of the UK. It would seem that the self-styled cheeky-chappy chef picks and chooses his locations carefully, which bodes well for Dubai diners.

When we visited, Jamie’s Italian had been open for business for about four weeks, but since it was still in its ‘soft-opening’ stages, there was hardly a peep of publicity. We’d heard rumours that the official opening – complete with a visit from the quick-talking ‘mockney’ – would take place when the venue finally secured its alcohol licence, but frankly we couldn’t wait any longer. Besides, who needs alcohol to have fun?

Jamie’s Italian is a quintessentially casual venue, meaning that guests don’t have to book in advance unless they have a party of eight people or above. Since my entourage had the day off, my date and I were able to turn up and get a table straight away. Once we were seated, our chirpy waitress, who seemed to be reciting from invisible cue cards, welcomed us and told us to hold tight for Dennis. Dennis? Dennis was to be our waiter for the evening and it would be Dennis who’d talk us through the menu and the day’s specials. At this, she scampered off, leaving us to digest our surroundings.

I haven’t been to a Jamie’s Italian back in the UK, but I’m guessing that they’re all pretty similar in sentiment if not size to the Festival City restaurant (this being Dubai, Jamie’s is pretty big). All light woods and industrial metal piping (plus two enormous contemporary chandeliers), the venue appears to be an extension of the loftspace that you see in those Sainsbury’s ads. In this respect it’s rather contrived, but I’ll have to admit that it works wonderfully – I instantly felt comfortable, cosy and at ease despite the sizeable venue being still only half full.

Perhaps my only reservation was with the copious amount of Jamie memorabilia being displayed on every available surface – it should be remembered that a lot of people might extremely enjoy Jamie Oliver’s food, books, TV shows and drinks, but nonetheless might not want his face staring at them constantly over their three courses.

Our discussion was cut short by Dennis, who bounded up our table and began to talk us through the menu in great detail. His recital was impressive as was the fact he would happily recommend some dishes over others – part of the sales pitch, I’m sure, but it was refreshing nonetheless. With Dennis’s help we settled on bruschetta topped with spiced pumpkin and goat’s cheese, and marinated sardines for starters (‘nibbles’ in Jamie-speak). We’d then skip the antipasti and get stuck into the main courses: a grilled salmon steak and a bowl of game ragu paccheri.

One thing that has always impressed me about the Jamie Oliver juggernaught is that it successfully marries big business with a genuine sense of homegrown quality. Jamie’s Italian, after all, is a chain restaurant, but the emphasis on fresh produce and friendly service is undeniable. This was exemplified by our starters, which arrived swiftly, were well presented, expertly prepared and boasted some of the freshest ingredients we’d tasted for a while. The sweet yet mildly spicy pumpkin caponata was offset beautifully by a snow-white sprinkling of fragrant goat’s cheese, while the sardines were arranged in little glistening silver curls on the plate; each tasting as good as they looked.

Though these dishes whet my appetite and made me think twice about not ordering from the antipasti, I contented myself with the fact that the starters had done enough to pique my appetite and soon, two pristine white bowls arrived at our table: One framing dark red, rich ragu; the other a plump salmon resting on a bed of emerald-green pea shoots, courgettes, and drizzled in a rich, lemony aioli.

Both dishes were fantastic. The flavoursome slow-cooked game was perfectly punctuated by crispy breadcrumbs, while the paccheri (which is made onsite) was cooked to al-dente perfection. From the salty, crisp skin to its juicy pink flesh to the Roman-style stewed vegetables – which crackled and crunched with freshness – my date’s grilled salmon dish was equally good.

Disappointingly, many of the desserts on the menu were unavailable on our visit. Still, we were happy to conclude with a small serving of fresh ice cream followed by two warming cups of Musetti cappuccino. As we idly prodded at the ice cream with our spoons and sipped our coffee, we caught site of some other dishes flashing past our table on their way to others – towering burgers, fat chips covered in parmesan, and mountainous pasta dishes. It was clear that the menu offered a great deal more, a few surprises, and plenty of reasons to come back – alcohol licence or otherwise.

The bill (for two)

1x marinated sardines Dhs35
1x Bruschetta with pumpkin Dhs29
1x Game ragu Dhs79
1x Salmon steak Dhs99
1x three-scoop ice cream Dhs33
2x ginger beer Dhs44
1x Small Perrier Dhs12
2x Cappuccino Dhs40
Total (excluding service) Dhs371