Meaty, beety, big and bouncy

Smiths of Smithfield is the butchest new eaterie in town, where even the root vegetables ooze testosterone
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Indy Lifestyle Online

SMITHS OF SMITHFIELD: 67-77 Charterhouse Street, London EC1 (020-7236 6666) Ground floor bar Mon-Fri 7am-11pm, Sat 10.30am-11pm, Sun 10.30am-10,30pm, second floor Mon-Fri 12-3pm, 6-11pm, Sat 6-11pm, top floor (from July) Mon-Fri 12-3pm, 6-11pm, Sat 6-11pm, Sun 12-5pm, 6-10.30pm. Disabled access. Major cards except Diners

SMITHS OF SMITHFIELD: 67-77 Charterhouse Street, London EC1 (020-7236 6666) Ground floor bar Mon-Fri 7am-11pm, Sat 10.30am-11pm, Sun 10.30am-10,30pm, second floor Mon-Fri 12-3pm, 6-11pm, Sat 6-11pm, top floor (from July) Mon-Fri 12-3pm, 6-11pm, Sat 6-11pm, Sun 12-5pm, 6-10.30pm. Disabled access. Major cards except Diners

Is this whole guy thing going too far? In its pre-opening swagger, Smiths of Smithfield boasted of being a "landmark international destination", consisting of an all-day ground-floor bar, first-floor cocktail lounge, no-bookings second-floor dining room and glass-walled top-floor restaurant with an outdoor terrace looking south over the City skyline. Six months after its original launch date, the building contractors' legacy lingers on in the almost-finished product (the rooftop restaurant doesn't open until next month). It's handsome enough, but so big and butch and loud.

Before we were through the huge open doors guarded by doormen we'd noticed two mildly unsettling sights. First, the chef John Torode, the man with overall responsibility for feeding the 500 - the 300 people who can fit into the bar, 120 diners on the second floor and, when it opens, the 75 seated on the top floor - was striding up the street leading away from his empire. He's not mob-on-his-moped famous, but recognisable from GMTV, and in the protracted run-up to Smiths' opening much has been made of his philosophy of food - "simple with fantastic ingredients" - and his ability to run a joint this size. He was the head chef of Conran's Mezzo, moved on to Bluebird, then marked time writing cookbooks such as Relax, It's Only Food.

After the apparent defection of the chef - of course he's allowed a break, but why now? - worse was the dishevelled man in a suit right outside the entrance, pleading with a taxi driver while solicitous friends hovered ready to make reparations. The cab pulled away without him. A familiar enough sight on a Friday night, but still a worrying harbinger.

Thus it was a relief to find plenty of other chefs banging out meals in the de rigueur open-plan kitchen on the second floor, and very few suits askew there or anywhere else in Smiths. But for all its space, gigantic leather sofas and deli-cum-short-order food counter, the multi- functional bar seems more dingy than charming. During the day it serves blue-collar breakfasts made with top-class ingredients, Cornish pasties, fish-finger sandwiches, and bowls of soup with mighty slices of bread. In the evening it was doing what the man outside would soon be doing: heaving.

Such was the din, the womanscreening entrants to the dining room could barely hear us. The "music" shook the dining room. With prominent stainless-steel ducts, cast-iron pillars and wooden girders, it's loft-like all right, but broodingly decorated to enhance, not whitewash over, associations with hard graft, especially that for which Smithfield is known... butchery. Walls that aren't bare brick are painted dried-blood red punctuated with a couple of scabbily coloured and textured abstracts. At the back, visible through black sash windows is a vertiginous drop down to railway tracks which seem to pass right under the building. The industrial environment, noise level, location and ethos may not suit sensitive souls and vegetarians, but the menu has enough to tempt everyone.

Under the characteristically no-nonsense headings Larder, Soup, Mains and Grills, dishes represent a safe but appealing contemporary spread; they're to the point, and recognise that good cooking begins with well-chosen ingredients. Assigned to each group is what seems to be a weight, or the amount it will add to the waistline: all larder items are 4 1/2 pounds, mains all 9 1/2. The penny drops: these are the prices, which are also remarkably lower than those at most trendy new restaurants in London. You could have a couple of courses for £15. We spent £30 each on three, with wine.

The simplest starter was roast beets, mozzarella and anchovies. Can't go wrong with that, and it didn't. Squid rendered unusually tender, on bok choy, salty with fish sauce, buzzing with garlic and heated by numerous fine slices of red chilli packed all the right South-east Asian punches. Smoked haddock with a strip of grilled bacon was a lovely, pale and interesting piece of fish cooked with precision.

Although it majors on meat and fish, there was no lamb on the menu, nor offal either. There's always steak, but one of the specials was also a flank - or, as they seem to make a point of slabby descriptions, was that plank? The noise made it hard to hear our efficient waitress. It was flank and it was, and I never expect to say this about a steak, magnificent - with the intensity of flavour that ageing gives beef. Complete with watercress and sautéed new potatoes, for £10.50 it was bloody good value, too.

A successful steak owes more to the raw material than the cooking. Pork belly needs lengthier preparation. Here the slow-roasted meat comes with a great salsa verde, and mashed potato stiff with olive oil. But it seemed to have been kept hot for too long, drying it out so plier-like teeth were needed to chew the meat, and a mallet to smash the crackling. Although Smiths seems to go out of its way to show how tough it is, this was going too far.

Peppery roast plaice with samphire and green beans, and sautéed new potatoes underneath, making the side order of mash otiose, was another satisfying plateful. But the cooking is generally bang on. Best of the puddings was a tremendous triangle of densely coffee and chocolate-flavoured semi freddo, with a less satisfactory slice of shortbread.

Friday night is possibly not the best time to put the dining room through its paces. It's a couple of doors down from Fabric, the hugely cool - and coolly huge - club, and Smiths' bar was the warm-up venue. Eating was not foremost on most minds. They're missing what's best about Smiths. We liked the food, but the whole place is too utilitarian - and, as it's not how I like my men - too butch to be entirely loveable.