If like Jamie (and me) you were born in the 1970s, you will probably remember trips to local restaurants with parents in the ’80s. For me it was mostly steakhouses or the local Chinese – as a boy I loved onion rings and sweet and sour pork best, although the birthday ice-cream sundaes are still a brilliant, eye-popping memory. We dressed up, made a special occasion out of it and stuffed our faces with adult-sized portions and knickerbocker glories.
Then one August day in 1988 something wonderful happened on my local high street; a pizza restaurant opened! You know the one, with the salad bar. For the first time there was a place to hang out with my buddies and prospective girlfriends and enjoy a cheap meal, which didn't involve burgers. Actually, it was the first place I'd eaten olives (I sent them back because I thought they were mouldy mushrooms!) These were good times, but let’s face it, the pizzas were neither artisan nor even particularly good, just a high-fat treat.
Then during the 90s there was another phase of the pizza restaurant revolution, with ‘authentic’ Italian pizza joints expanding outwards from Soho, stone-baked and flipped in front of the diner. In the last five years these types of pizza/pasta shacks have really taken a grip on the high streets of Britain. So what’s next? We are demanding more than just a homogenous pizza experience in 2012, more than stone-baked fatty affairs, more than the ice-cream factory desserts; we want artisan, we want local, we want wood-fired ovens, basically we want Union Jacks.
“Do you want a drink?” I ask the kids on the way back from London’s Central St Giles Union Jacks. “No thanks, I don’t want to get rid of the taste of my flatbread.” Yup, they loved it and so did I.
Jamie and Chris Bianco’s original glass cathedral to flatbreads may be in a modernist development near New Oxford Street, but once inside you get a clear idea that this is all about those childhood memories from the ’70s and ’80s – minus the ropey food. A place where kids can relax, choose their own food, but still eat beautiful freshly-prepared grub.
Pink cola and cloudy lemonade got us going, enigmatic sweet-shop affairs, with stripy paper straws – re-introducing the non-chew-proof straw back into the kids' inventory is a very good thing.
We went for three starters, the trout and horseradish pate with mini Yorkshire puds, by-catch fish fingers and the potted prawn and crab. Generous and with just the right amount of hoo-ha from the horseradish and chilli to raise a cheeky, new-territory smile from the boys. The fish fingers were properly juicy and perfectly cooked.
Now the flatbreads, Oscar (9) reckons himself a bit of a foodie, and even he was excited by the menu of adult toppings on kid-sized portions. He plumped for the Red Ox – oxtail and brisket, slow braised in Worcestershire sauce, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, watercress and fresh horseradish. Jude (6) had the lolly pops (sausage and bacon). Bang-on.
I couldn’t decide between the Chilli Freak flatbread and the Empire Chicken roast, so the missus and I went for both. The chilli flat came with a waitress warning and a little pot of (I kid you not) lemon curd as a ‘fire-in-the-hole’ precaution. I needed it”¦hoo-ha indeed!
The Empire chicken was gorgeous, beautifully marinated in spices and yoghurt before getting its wood-fired treatment, plated up with crispy Bombay new potatoes and curry gravy.
Arctic roll, black forest gateau and Snickers ice-cream gave a retro ‘kerpow’ to the end of the meal.
How often do kids grin from ear-to-ear coming out of one of the more underwhelming pizza shacks? With UJs the smile lasts until well after the taste has left. Great food, real fun, good value and (while we’re on a retro theme) well skills.