On a weekday evening, a beer downstairs in Smiths of Smithfield is a busy affair. Lively pinstripes and romancing couples crowd the entrance and ground floor, drinking from the bar and choosing from the reasonably pricey Ground Floor Menu. In the bottom right-hand corner of the menu is the following text: “John Torodes’s ‘BEEF’ and other bovine matters – pick up your very own signed copy (£15).”
Torode is, of course, famous for presenting Masterchef and coining some silly catchphrases along with his shorter market stall trader counterpart. You know, him, erm… Gregg Wallace! Torode is also the head chef of SOS and this imperative – pushing his book to you like a carefully orchestrated political campaign – appears throughout the restaurant, on menus, walls and posters. Buy me, buy me, buy me…
The towering building has a New York loft apartment-feel with large arched windows and timber beams. There’s blasted brickwork and honey sunbeams leaking in through each aperture. Logistically, it’s nestled perfectly, a stone throw away from Smithfield Market and a mile or so walking distance for those bankers in their Church brogues. In the neighbourhood of St. John’s and Hix, it’s certainly in good company. But there’s nothing cosy and local about SOS; it’s bustling with an eclectic ramsham of shippers, shoppers, tourists and Masterchef enthusiasts. There are four floors that seem to rise from ground floor to top on a class system, or at least a ‘how heavy is your wallet?’ system, judging from the menus.
Torode is clearly serious about sourcing quality, local ingredients though and this is backed up in the restaurant’s statement on the website: ‘Simple food from simple ingredients’. The meat comes from named suppliers, the ageing time is given and you can choose whether your steak is pan-fried or grilled. There is also an epilogue of thanks on the menu to the “Suppliers, Farmers and Growers who work so hard to meet our needs and deliver us the highest quality produce from around Britain.”
On the second floor you’re able to peek into the kitchen as chefs dirty their whites and prepare the grub. Flaming steaks leave the kitchen smelling deep and fatty and I know some who say the best they’ve ever eaten were served in this very room. Maze Grill, Gaucho’s and the likes may argue with this, but on the tingly nose sensation I experienced, they could be on to something.
For a starter I ordered the lucky squid, chilli jam and Chinese broccoli (all starters are priced £7.50), which was an absolute delight. The squid was thick cut and dressed with a tangy chilli jam. Other starters range from tomato-and-basil soup with cheese on toast to lobster and sweetbread ravioli, spring onion, coriander broth; or seared tuna Szechwan pepper crust, black bean dressing (for seared read raw, and served with a selection of differing seaweed, great textures complimenting elusive seaside flavours). And then there it was on the menu again: “John Torodes’s ‘BEEF’ and other bovine matters – pick up your very own signed copy (£15)…” Calling out: Buy me, buy me, buy me…
Our waiter, a tall, skinny Camden-type (these include the multi-coloured sleeve tattoos, the rolled up sleeves – above the shoulder – part shaved head, part wavy, greasy comb-over, and one of those ear piecings – or ear stretchings – that exaggerated aperture in the ear the size of tea coaster), informed us that the special was pan-fried sea bass. Almost starving, I enquired the size of the fish, to which he replied, “Well, they’re all different sizes. Some are bigger than others. I think they’re big today, about the size of my dick.” Yes. That’s what he said. “Erm… right. Okay. Thanks,” I responded, quickly drawing an eye away from the specials and to the meats.
Being the excited consumer of animal that I am, I had the power plate of braised lamb shoulder and sweet potato with green peppercorn sauce (£15.00), and like our other main of crisp belly of pork and mash potato with green sauce (£15.00), it had that now ever familiar restaurant presentation of a typical juicy main with a dollop of creamy mash potato (sweet potato here) at the centre and the chosen meat (lamb for me and pork for him) placed painstakingly central on top, the accompanying sauce drizzled precisely around the plate like Jackson Pollock splurges. It’s a trim and orderly presentation but one that has become commonplace, and rather monotonous.
The second floor space is large and handsome, but loud, with a break-void through the core of the building punctuating each floor. Whether each person is having an enjoyable time or in an instrumental pitch competition, I couldn’t tell, but there’s a murmur that swiftly reaches fever pitch and I found it strenuous to hold conversion (to the frustration of my partner, I’m sure).
There’s a good selection of red, white and dessert wines, all very reasonably priced. Some punchy reds to accompany meat dishes, with £43.50 being the top-end price. We revelled in a bottle of Santa Rosa Merlot from Chile priced at £17.50. And then had another.
From the Sweet Tooth menu I had sticky toffee pudding and ice cream (£5.50) that was both ‘sticky’ and ‘toffee’ and excessive in sweetness. The vanilla cheesecake with rhubarb and PX sherry shot (£5.50) received positive feedback.
Leaving, we took a crimson padded lift to the ground floor – bloated on our own greedy indulgence – and exited past the stair foundations and ‘Torode Corner’, where we are reminded, for the final time: “John Torode’s ‘BEEF’ and other bovine matters – pick up your very own signed copy (£15)…” Buy me, buy me, buy me…