If the key to a successful formula for most restaurants resides on good service, a winning ambience and a memorable product, the recipe for seafood restaurants is on the surface simpler but in practice tricky to achieve: Get top notch fresh fish and shellfish, cook and serve them as simply as possible, don’t mess them around. The Company Shed, about which I rave at regular intervals, does not try to win Michelin stars, but succeeds by virtue of its welcome, lack of pretension and mostly its brilliant local seafood.
Not all fish restaurants succeed, but the best know their clientele intimately and deliver the goods – and as a result keep going for many years. In some cases the kitchen loses its zest and over time the buzz goes elsewhere, but with Smiths of Ongar (whose sister restaurant is in Wapping with a subtly different and decidedly more expensive menu to account for London pockets), two factors were readily apparent:
They proudly declared establishment in 1958; and the restaurant was humming with activity, nearly all tables occupied despite the early hour on a Saturday evening, and shoals of waitresses rushing between tables and kitchen. This I took to be a good sign, though bear in mind that restaurants in Essex are legendarily designed to appeal to the nouveau riche with unsophisticated palate, if you believe London-based food critics.
Our table for 2 was hemmed in along a wall not far from the kitchen, which was less than ideal but did allow us to see the food eaten at a range of other tables.
The fact that the menu is relatively untampered is another good sign, albeit with a few signature cocktails and a gin menu to keep up with trends and keep the till ringing. The fish is fairly classic luxury standard and showing few signs of being messed about with. All the signature notes are there: Mersea oysters in season? Yep. Lobsters? You bet – and not those minuscule farmed ones either, big and sweet! Crevettes? De rigueur! Lemon sole, salmon, scallops, seabass, monkfish, skate, halibut? All present and correct! And all very traditional and untainted by the whiff of cheffy excess.
After first ordering our respective G&Ts (Monkey 47 for me, Hayman’s Sloe for her), we chose our sample dinner with more classic combinations to the fore:
- Salad of Avocado, Cornish White Crab and Peeled Prawns
- Sweet Pickled Swedish Herrings with Crème Fraîche
- Dover sole meunière, on the bone (unless it was going to be filleted at the table, which I thought unlikely)
- Tranche of halibut with tomatoes and I can’t remember what else (it was on the specials menu.)
Picked herrings are not my usual style, but they certainly demonstrated the ample proportions of food served at Smiths – these were not tiny morsels of rollmop but full-grown herring in sweet vinegary spiced marinade, pickled shallots, crème fraiche and all. Surprisingly enough, they were delicious, all the more so for avoiding a strongly fishy taste – the sign of good fresh fish.
It was a nicely old-fashioned touch that this dish was on the menu at all, pickled herrings being eternally popular in Germany and Scandinavia but way behind scallops, muscles and prawns among the fishy starters (yes, a prawn cocktail was there too, a nice bit of 70s retro that works when served with a big helping of irony!)
The lady’s crab and avocado tower looked wonderful too, though, being more than an ample helping, left her struggling with her man-sized and meaty tranche of halibut. Tell the truth, she failed dismally to complete her main! A shame, since said halibut was very delicious and beautifully cooked – time for a catty bag maybe, since my feline companion would most certainly not have left it! Sampling the starter left me impressed with the fresh-tasting crab, which I assume had been shipped over from Cromer to order.
My dover sole was beautifully done, with evidence of rich golden crust from the flour in which the fish had been dredged, butter-fried through but not a moment longer. The flesh was sweet and tasty, enhanced too by a splendid glass of Gavi (I was not driving.) My goal had been to peel off the bone in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, who was said to eat a dover sole every lunchtime, and had consummate skill in filleting his flat fish (I witnessed this second hand, on stage in Hitchcock Blonde, where the master was played by the late William Hootkins.)
Choice of sides was limited. We chose minted new potatoes, cauliflower cheese and peas (not fresh) to accompany the fish, which may have been a side too far since each was plenty to share. Could have been better.
Earlier I mentioned service, this being one area where Smiths adds significant value and demonstrates to other restaurants how to deliver the goods, literally and metaphorically. Good service is so essential to the restaurant experience, and indeed what persuades people to pay good money to come out, yet falls flat so often. It’s not complicated but done well it compensates for any other cock-up along the way.
All the more reason to make sure the young learn the old school waiting style, then. Indeed, it was welcome to see old hands showing the younger waitresses how to do the job, unobtrusively but efficiently – true on-the-job training, you might say. Even the sommelier was keenly in evidence, where often they prefer the company of wine bottles to customers (can’t think why!) Slightly smarmy, thought the lady, but I’d sooner that than snooty or vacant.
Neither of us had room for desserts, though those around us looked pretty decent. At £126 this was an experience far removed from the local chip shop, and indeed a lot heavier on the wallet than The Company Shed (the gins alone were £24.) Worth the money? My partner thought not.
It will appeal to those not looking for cutting edge scientific gastronomy but will appeal if you have a sense of tradition in your seafood dinners, perhaps reflected in memories of how seafood restaurants once were by way of freshness and simplicity, but without the fusty and fussy sneering attitudes that went with them.
However, while footfall may prove a big hit, those London critics will give Smiths a wide berth, but would certainly do much sneering in the unlikely event they ever they set foot. More inventiveness would be welcome but my reply would be simple: oysters, lobster, dover sole meunière are all classic. Change too fast at your peril!