In London the other day, I read that a trendy local magazine has declared that “Meat is the new black.” Be that as it may, Smithfield, London’s all-night meat and poultry market in Clerkenwell, has become as fashionable as Manhattan’s meatpacking district in the far West Village. Up to now, Clerkenwell’s most famous (and, for all I know, only) resident was the poet John Betjeman, who took rooms here in the 50’s and 60’s and used to give literary lunches of steaks from the market and champagne served in pewter mugs. He liked this desolate neighborhood between the City and the East End because it was quiet. (He was also said to have taken more than a passing interest in the rough trade that roamed the alleyways at night–not unlike certain denizens of Gansevoort Street.) In Betjeman’s time, the only way to eat well was, as W. Somerset Maugham put it, to have breakfast three times a day. Now, of course, that has changed. And Smiths of Smithfield, a vast new four-story restaurant that has opened opposite the meat market, is doing for the neighborhood what Pastis did downtown in New York, but with much better food.
When I drew up on a recent evening, there were limos parked outside the market, a magnificent wrought-iron and glass Victorian structure that is painted rather wildly in pale green, blue and mauve. Smiths is directly across the street, a red brick warehouse decorated with a black awning emblazoned with the letters “SOS.”
Ever since Sir Terence Conran opened Bibendum in Chelsea’s Michelin tire building, bustling, multi-level gastrodomes have been taking over London’s obsolete industrial buildings, power stations and derelict warehouses. Smiths is cleverly designed, retaining the original arched windows, open duct work, steel columns, timber floors and brick walls. (Miraculously, it isn’t noisy.) The ground floor, which serves 300, is for cocktails, breakfast (“dry slice, wet slice, fried slice”) and light food such as “beef stew and a pint.” There are newspapers hanging on the wall, old leather sofas, oak tables for communal dining and a large, stainless-steel bar where you can eat as well as drink. Even though the room is packed (with two sorts of customers–young men from the City in uniform gray with cell phones, and cool characters in uniform black with cell phones) the atmosphere is relaxed, partly because the staff is so friendly. On the second floor is a champagne and martini bar, on the third a casual restaurant, and on the fourth a more formal dining room (white tablecloths and candles) with a view across the glass roofs of the market to the dome of St. Paul’s, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and the City. The view from the other side is equally impressive, looking out over railroad tracks curving into atunnel–the perfect place for tossing corpses, like the bridge in The Lady Killers .
Betjeman’s generation thought spaghetti was made by spontaneous combustion in a can and served on toast. They would have been impressed by the menu at Smiths, with its bacon from rare-breed Old Spot pigs, steaks from “long-matured Angus rare-breed beef from Islay” nurtured, as our Australian waiter informed us, on the by-products of whisky. Does black-faced Welsh lamb or Cornish cream butter mean anything to you? John Torode, the Australian-born chef and partner at Smiths, hopes it will. He aims to showcase the best of British ingredients, and he does it with style–and on a large scale. He learned to serve hundreds at a time at Conran’s mega-restaurants, including Pont de la Tour, Quaglino’s, Mezzo and Bluebird. (Like any British celebrity chef, he is a TV star with several books to his credit.)
Prices on the third floor, which serves 130, are listed under categories in pounds, such as “Larder: All 4 1/2 pounds” or “Grills: All 10 1/2 pounds.” At first you think that is how much the rump of Welsh lamb (or whatever) weighs, then you think, disconcertingly, that that’s how much weight it will put on you. (Hence “Sweet tooth: All 3 1/2 pounds” doesn’t exactly send you reaching for the chocolate and toffee pudding.) The fourth floor, which serves 74, has the highest prices, with main courses between $21 and $39, but I found the food equally good, albeit much simpler, on the floor below–and at half the price.
The notion that meat is the new black might have another connotation in the country where mad-cow disease is said to have originated. Now the animals have their own passports, which not only include information on their parents and the farms they grew up on, but also who slaughtered them. Since–given the location–a large part of Smiths’ menu is devoted to meat, there is a “fine meat list” on the menu, accompanied by the purveyors’ names. So it’s hardly surprising that the meat here truly is exceptional, starting with the aged beef from Islay (get a rump steak with a side order of cubed potatoes sautéed in rosemary and garlic). British game is hung to ripen before being cooked, which is one reason it has a much stronger taste than the farm-raised game we get in America. At Smiths the venison was rare and juicy, the flesh the color of garnet, served with a purée of parsnips and wild mushrooms, topped with parsnip chips for texture. Meaty slices of duck breast were layered on slivered braised red cabbage and accompanied by a melting fondant of potato. A sharp horseradish sauce cut the richness of roast pheasant, served on a bed of lentils and bright-green leaves of kale.
Torode’s travels in the Far East are evident in many dishes, among them his crunchy yet tender salt-and-pepper squid with spicy roast chili dressing, and a lobster omelette with Thai basil and star anise. Seared scallops on a smoky purée of eggplant with spiky leaves of rocket (a bitter green like arugula) were absolutely wonderful, a surprising juxtaposition of ingredients that seemed made for each other. You can also begin with a platter of mellow and salty cured Cumbrian ham with poached pears and ripe Roquefort, or plump roast figs tossed with French beans, rocket, slivers of red onion and Parmesan. This is my kind of food.
British cod is superior to American–moister, with more taste and a firmer flesh. I’ve not had better than Torode’s roast cod with yellow split peas, topped with a creamy, lemon-colored tartar sauce flecked with tarragon. Pan-fried sea bass with artichokes came with black olives that emphasized the sweetness of the fish.
“Puddings” included a crème brûlée with the consistency of whipped cream, topped with a warm glaze of sugar; a light gingerbread pudding that was more like a cake; and honey parfait with fresh figs and Madeira.
After dinner, we walked through the market, which loomed over the street like an old railway station. Instead of trains, enormous white refrigerated trucks were backed into its entranceways; men in white lab coats and hard hats were loading them with bloody carcasses hanging from hooks. There were no taxis, so we got into a waiting limo that took us home. For the same price, we could have had a plate of Torode’s great organic Welsh black sirloin with chips.
Smiths of Smithfield
* * *
67-77 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1
Dress: Trendy black or banker’s suits
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Expensive, interesting selections from Australia and New Zealand
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses third floor $14 to $18, fourth floor $27 to $38
Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with different seatings on different floors; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor