I had the pleasure of being invited to a soft opening of Jamie Oliver’s newest restaurant Trattoria Chelmsford this week. A soft opening is a chance for the staff and systems to have a run through to ensure that everything is working correctly, and everything runs smoothly when the restaurant opens to the public on Monday 20th October. I was expecting everything to be a little rough around the edges – was it? Read on to find out more…
Location / Venue
So for those of you familiar with Chelmsford, it’s at the Saracens Head / Shire Hall end of the High Street in the old Barclays Bank Building. It’s fabulous to see a bit of life injected into this end of the High Street, there isn’t much to look at outside – I imagine planning consent on an old building is pretty tight, so a subtle ‘Trattoria Chelmsford’ sign just glows gently in the evening.
Inside they have gone for a ‘rustic’ theme, patched up plaster work, torn patches of wall paper, and distressed mirrors. It’s not entirely to my taste, it’s a bit ‘bombed out / hastily repaired’ in my opinion. The air-conditioning units, which are clearly meant to be embedded into a ceiling are just fixed on the original ceiling – it looks a bit ‘meh’. as your eyes look up to take it all in. If you don’t look up (or fuss about silly details like me), it’s actually very pleasant, the lighting design is fantastic, and the jumbled seating and tables work well. The kitchen is housed in the middle of the floor, and open for all the sights, sounds, smells and general theatre of restaurant cooking, it all looks great, although the downside of an open kitchen was revealed when, what I can assume was a fish dish was cooking, and a smell akin to Captain Birdseye waders hit my nose as I tucked into my pudding.
Special mention must go to the toilet facilities, these are wonderfully designed, with ‘Oliver’ Thomas Crapper Cisterns, thankfully the ‘Baghdad Chic’ of upstairs isn’t mirrored downstairs and it has a wonderful vintage feel to it.
The staff are headed up by the Restaurant Manager, Dan Bennett who gave us a warm greeting as we entered, we were then handed over to the Matradee who lead us to our table he was lovely, and quickly rattled off some of the specials and made a few recommendations of his favourites on the menu. It was nice to see a key member of staff visibly passionate about ‘the product’ – I’d love to give him a name check, but there wasn’t a name badge in sight and I didn’t catch his name. Our Waitress for the evening came over and introduced herself and took and order for drinks (both of us opting for the Trattoria Birra – which is BEAUTIFUL) and left us to pick through the menu (more on that in a moment). Throughout the evening all the table staff I met were an absolute delight – happy, warm and charming. One spoke about the food and drink training they’d had and how in-depth it was so they were able to really help customers navigate the food and drink menus and offer personal recommendations. I *like* that – I really do, it’s not uncommon in higher end restaurants, but usually in this kind of price bracket you wouldn’t expect the waiter to be able to help choose a wine.
I noticed a family eating there, and the children were clearly interested in the open kitchen, so the waitress let the children to the periphery of it for a closer look, explaining everything, it was lovely to see. The staff have clearly been trained to an excellent standard, and hopefully the enthusiasm and excitement they have for the product will carry on.
My only ‘complaint’ is the staff use handheld terminals to take orders and probably check the status of the meals in the kitchen, it’s a fabulous use of technology, but it does look a bit like the staff are looking at their mobile phone whilst dashing between tables. It’s a silly niggle really, I do love a ‘rustic’ pen and pad.
The Food and Drink
So of course, you’re not coming to Trattoria Chelmsford for the décor or staff really – it’s all about the food and drink. The Menu (the one at time of writing is HERE), is pretty small, but should cover most palates. The prices are very reasonable, I think the mention of a TV Chef’s restaurant instantly makes your taste buds tingle and your wallet groan. There is certainly no wallet groaning here, the prices are very reasonable and in line with competing restaurants (Pizza Express, Zizzi’s etc). I did take exception to the lack of the ‘V’ symbol that vegetarians instantly look out for, you must have a good read of the menu to find out what is suitable, or ask the waiting staff for their recommendations. I get that it’s nice to have a conversation with them and have them guide you through options, but sometimes it’s just nice to pick something with no need to question or wonder. In most restaurants I can find something almost immediately by just hunting the ‘V’ – but here, it’s not possible – in my opinion this is a MASSIVE oversight.
The food I had was fantastic, I really enjoyed the Baked chestnut mushrooms to start, the Vegetable rotolo al forno for Main and the Epic chocolate brownie for Dessert. Whilst it’s not the most ground breaking food you’ll ever taste you’re paying sub £25 for three courses it’s very good value, and the portion sizes are fair. I left feeling full, but not stuffed and able to enjoy all three courses.
I did really like the details, the food is presented well, and not in an overly pretentious fashion, the cutlery and tableware is of excellent quality (I dread to think how much cutlery goes missing from Jamie’s restaurants!) – it just gives you that extra feeling of thought, design, and quality – something lacking in other chains.
So – in conclusion I had an excellent evening at Trattoria Chelmsford, whilst not overly enamoured with some aspects of the styling, the food, the drink and the staff were all spot on. Niggles aside, I really look forward to visiting again (and again) and watching this restaurant have the success it deserves. It’s great to have another restaurant in the growing army of them in Chelmsford, but it’s nice to see an old building utilised so well, and bringing a bit of a buzz back to the quieter end of the High Street. Despite being part of a chain, this particular one feels a little different, it’s not cropped up in a new building on the outskirts or town, it’s utilising an old building left empty, and leaving some of the originality and charm, and not being a identikit of one of the other branches. It’s nice to have Jamie Oliver’s ‘homecoming’ restaurant in the City I love so much, so in short – GO! Enjoy, and tell them I sent you. 😉