I’ve always thought it incongruous that some of the best seafood is to be had is in restaurants about as far from the ocean as you can get. Lucky for us then that two of those restaurants are in Sheffield. A year or so ago I wrote about the Mediterranean, a wonderful little find on Sharrow Vale Road; it was a couple of hours of sunshine on a filthy winter night and the simple fish dishes were spot on. Seafood at Smith & Baker is fabulous too.
Richard Smith is one of Sheffield’s most well established chefs; his eponymous Crosspool bistro dates back to 1995 and it eventually became Artisan via Thyme. Along the way he scooped up Relish on Eccleshall Road, The Cricket Inn at Totley where Jack Baker was head chef, and a couple more. They joined forces with Jim Harrison, owner of Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell to become BrewKitchen; Smith & Baker Dining Room is the new kid on the block.
You’ll find an interesting and diverse concentration of eateries on Eccy Road and it’s held on to a well-deserved reputation for independent eateries.
The Dining Room is an airy space, a little bit Skandi, a little bit Mid-Century Moderns; quite cool but not stark. Some walls have crazy wallpaper – it looks like a bunch of kids have been let loose with marker pens – it’s cute. Wood is blonde, hanging lights are those filament drops that are the rage and there’s cutlery displayed in boxes on the wall. Just at the point when I’m sighing and thinking ‘if I see one more set of spoons as decoration ...’ I take a closer look, and they’re vintage Sheffield, so the designer’s off the hook.
The menu changes daily – sometimes hourly depending on what’s left after the lunchtime service.
Given Baker’s Essex coast background it’s no surprise there’s lots of fish. The story goes that aged 11 he would go out on the boats with his uncles then help them cook the bounty on a fire outside his parent’s West Mersey beach hut. His eventual journey north has taken him via Windsor Castle where, amongst other royals, he was in charge of catering for the corgis (cheese scones and duck in gravy, if you must know) and Chesapeake Bay where he cooked for the likes of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Sheffield on a wet Wednesday in February must have been a bit of a downer.
Lucky corgis, I say, for the ‘Fabulous Baker Boy’ can cook, though it comes at a price. Spoiler alert; bring deep pockets. I continue my quest for the perfect fish ravioli, and this one, stuffed with potted shrimp and sitting in buttery lobster sauce goes straight into the top five. The addition of preserved heritage tomatoes can only be – and is – a good thing. Twice baked Lincolnshire Poacher, mustard and herb soufflé isn’t the prettiest plate of food – in fact it’s a bit of a mess – but it tastes just fine, whereas chicken and chorizo terrine looks and tastes fabulous.
There’s lots more fish for starters: mussels, scallops and squid, all hovering round the £12 mark apart from the scallops which come in at an eye-watering £16. I’m not sure how that sum’s reached; my fishmonger Paul at Todmorden market charges less than a pound each and they’ve come directly from Fleetwood that morning. But Smith’s prices have always been steep. I remember losing all feeling in my feet when I got the bill at Thyme 15 years ago. Prices level out a bit when it comes to mains and poached wild sea trout with lobster bisque is easily the dish of the day. The fish is carefully cooked and the ingredients do the talking. Braised fennel is a brilliant touch, bringing a subtle, herby note to the pitch-perfect fish. Everything’s made in house, including pasta; pappardelle is put to good use with hake and clams to produce a gloriously rustic plate, full of flavour and brio. Again, it brings to mind a terrace overlooking an Italian lake or the Med.
I should have gone for Dover sole (whole, roast, with ham hock and brown shrimp) but the venison took my fancy. There was nothing wrong with it, it was decently cooked and presented; peppered loin, chestnut, Koffman cabbage, fondant potato and the ingredient that drew me to it, 100 per cent dark chocolate, which in the end I couldn’t detect. My gripe is the meanness of the portion. At £24 for four pieces of meat, it is pushing it.
I don’t imagine Jack Baker is baking, but he needs to keep a closer eye on desserts. Baked white chocolate cheesecake is a bit of a sad affair. And now, an admission. I’ve never eaten baked Alaska until today, not even a Findus one in 1982. So I figured it was time. Oh man I was right not to touch it. I think that least said, soonest mended. By contrast (did it come out of the same kitchen?) gooseberry and elderflower fool is divine.
By now the place has filled up a bit so there’s a happier atmosphere. Service is charming, informal but informed. The true test for a reviewer is if you’d go back and spend your own money. Yes, I would, but I’d stick to the fish dishes and skip dessert. And perhaps go before seven when Monday to Thursday you can score three courses for £20.
Smith & Baker Dining Room, 371-373 Eccleshall Road, Sheffield S11 8PF. 0114 266 5541, www.smithandbaker.co.uk. Dinner for three, three courses each with wine £150.