Sunday, 29 November 2015

London - Smiths of Smithfield by John Torode

One of my foodie observations is how the zeitgeist has changed over the last decade, with the super star chef front and centre in people's consciousness.  This has almost certainly been driven by the transition of the chef moving out from the kitchen and into the television studio.  One cooking show in particular has taken the world by storm, and that show is Masterchef.  The original Masterchef kicked off in the UK before the concept was picked up by other markets and at last count, there were fifty countries that run a version of Masterchef!

While the concept started in the UK, the Australian version is credited with helping to transform the show, providing a more glamorous approach that, for me, was a little too heavy on the drama and was less about the food.  One of the great ironies of Masterchef is that the Australian version is hosted by an ex British chef living in Australia (Gary Mehigan) and the UK version has an ex Aussie hosting (John Torode) - go figure!

I was recently in the UK for work and looking for a place to check out, and my boss recommended a little place called Smiths of Smithfield, one of his favourite steak restaurants run by Jonty Rhodes.  I thought is strange that an ex South African cricket star would run a steak restaurant in London, but hey, the South Africans are well known meat lovers.  It wasn't until I made the reservation and had a look at the web site, that I realised that I'd heard wrong and that Smiths of Smithfield was actually run by none other than John Torode!  I felt like an idiot :)

While I'd done my fair share of solo dining in London (The Square, Marcus, Maze Grill), I was actually able to convince one of my colleagues to come along and check out Smiths with me. Hailing from the US and an avid meat lover, bringing KH along to visit a steak restaurant seemed like the right thing to do.  However, trying to find the place, especially for a couple of tourists, turned out to be a little harder than expected and there was a lot of walking involved to find the funky restaurant in Charterhouse Street.  Not an issue for me, but a huge one for KH, who'd been recovering for ankle surgery, who took a little extra time to find the joint.

This gave me a little while to scope out Smiths of Smithfield, which was a huge place in a converted warehouse.  It was easy to find though, once I was in the right street, I just had to follow the crowd!  Smiths is spread out over three floors and the ground floor is a very hip bar that was so crowded, people had spilled out over the sidewalk.  I decided that it was time to brave the crowd and head to our table and wait for KH inside and as I introduced myself to the door person, was directed up to the  main dining area on the third floor.  I skipped the waiting lift and decided to take the open staircase and wandered past the 2nd floor, which looked to be a private dining area.

Once I hit the 3rd floor, I was confronted with a huge open space with exposed brick, wooden floors and exposed pipes that reinforced the warehouse feel of the building's previous life.  I was seated near one of the arched windows that gave me a great view of the dining room and kitchen, as well as giving me some great light.  After a while, KH hobbled up the stairs and over to the table, a little worse for wear but very happy to have seen a little more of London than just his hotel room.

Our menu was pretty typical of a bistro or steakhouse, with out a decent range of starters and mains, as well as a 'Smiths Grill' section that listed out all of the proteins cooked on the grill.  In a nice touch, there was an ode to the suppliers on the menu, just in case you wanted to know exactly where your beef came from!  We kept it pretty simple and ordered starters and mains to begin, leaving making a call on dessert for later - we also skipped the offered beers, both being non drinkers.

Starters were an interesting affair, with KH choosing a Thai spiced salad with beef, green mango and a nam jim sauce, which looked quite refreshing on the plate.  There was a nice little heat from the salad and the beef was tender, working well with the nam jim.  The dish was piled high with bamboo shoots and was on the whole tasty, without setting the world on fire.

I'd chosen the scallops and was quite surprised by the presentation of my starter.  Expecting to see a couple of massive North Atlantic scallops perfectly seared, I was a little disappointed with the diced scallops that came with crushed peas, crispy pancetta and shaved parmesan cheese. Not that it looked bad, I actually quite liked it's simple and rustic presentation, it was just that it seemed like such a waste to dice up scallops for cooking.  The scallop meat was nice, with the smaller pieces fully caramelised and worked nicely with the pancetta.  I'll never really understand the British fascination with mushy and crushed peas though!  Look, they were OK, but I'd have preferred a nice puree to go along with the scallops.

In a 'snap' moment, we both decided to go with the 7oz Aubrey Allen fillet, a piece that is often called the tenderloin or in the US a filet mignon, which came with a side of chips.  Both of us being meat lovers, we went with the the appropriate medium rare request, which was the recommendation from our waiter also.  Australia and the US have some of the finest beef cattle on the planet, in fact, you normally see either USDA or Australian beef on most restaurant menus, so we both had a fair amount of experience with good beef.  We were both incredibly disappointed with our Aubrey Allen beef, which was a little on the tough side, but completely lacking in flavour.  It was almost as if there had been no seasoning added during the preparation of the beef, and as a consequence, the beef lacked flavour.  At least the chips were lovely and crunchy with a great golden colour.

Flavour of the beef aside, we were having a great time catching up, so decided to hang around and have a crack at dessert.  A man of simple (dessert) tastes, KH wen for a very simple bowl of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, which was delivered in an old style 'Sunday' bowl, which was a nice touch.  Ice cream is ice cream and the Smiths version was as creamy as you'd expect and had good flavours. Hard to go wrong really.

I'd picked one of my favourite desserts, an Eton Mess, which was also presented in a 'Sunday' bowl, which turned out to be completely inappropriate choice of plating.  Mainly because it was just so hard to eat the Eton Mess!  An Eton Mess is bits of fruit, normally but not always strawberry, with clotted cream and crunchy meringue, made to look quite messy.  It's often served a stand up glass, similar to the 'Sunday' cup at Smiths, but I've always found them too hard to eat, preferring a larger bowl that makes the dessert easier to eat.  It had all the makings of a good Eton Mess, but it was a little sweeter than I wanted and I thought that it could have used more strawberry to help balance out the sweetness.

Despite not having the perfect meal, I had a really good time as Smiths of Smithfield, largely on the back of hanging out with KH and some pretty decent starters.  It's a great spot to spend time in too, the warehouse feel was bang on, and we felt really comfortable just sitting and chatting. But, and this is a big but, the steaks were really disappointing and not up to standard, surprising for a restaurant that seemed to pride itself on it's local produce and suppliers.  Maybe we just had a bad batch, or maybe there was a real problem with the preparation and seasoning.

Service was bang on too, with the funky wait staff both looking and acting the part.  Smiths cultivates an edgy feel and the staff seem to propagate the feeling without alienating the clientele, which is no small feat!  

I'm not sure how much stock you can put into celebrity chef restaurants nowadays, I mean, how often would John Torode actually hang out and cook in Smiths, especially given the fine dining restaurant on the top floor?  I do find it a little ironic though, a guy that has helped shape the last decade with a little show called Masterchef (which has stormed the world), has a restaurant that just didn't hit the highs we expected... 


*Fun fact - according to the website, apparently William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in a field where the Smithfield Meat Market now stands...

The spicy Thai salad was pretty good
Despite the scallops being diced and not whole, the dish was tasty and I really enjoyed it
The steaks were disappointing - they just lacked flavour and were a little stringy

Smith's of Smithfield

Dining Room - Smiths of Smithfield Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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