Smith’s has a large, airy dining room with exposed brickwork and picture windows, the dining area in an L shape. It has been running since 1958, so must be doing something right, and it was completely packed on the night that we went. I’ll avoid any Essex girl jokes regarding the clientele, but Rod Stewart is reportedly a regular, which should tell you all you need to know in this regard. The menu was extensive, with starters mostly £7 or so, mains around £15 – £20 other than a few costlier choices such as lobster, desserts £6.50. Set lunch was £16.50 for two courses. Seafood is the speciality, though there are a handful of meat dishes for determined carnivores. I am not sure how often the menu changes, but raspberries in January suggest that seasonality is not a major focus of the kitchen.
The wine list runs to 74 wines, the bulk of which are priced under £30. St Helena Pinot Gris 2006 was £22.50 for a wine that costs around £7 in the shops, Chassagne Montrachet 2006 Morgeot from Domaine Bachey-Legros was £60 for a wine that costs about £28 retail, while Louis Roederer NV champagne was fairly priced at £48 for a bottle that will set you back perhaps £25. A prawn cocktail seemed an appropriate dish, and it had a decent Marie Rose sauce but was padded out with lettuce and tomatoes at the expense of pleasant but sparse prawns (11/20). Better was rolled Swedish herring fillets with crème fraiche, which had very good taste, served with a simple salad and raw onions (13/20).
My main course was a generous fillet of wild sea bass with a lemon butter sauce and bak choi. This initially arrived overcooked and dried out, but was replaced without fuss; the revised version was carefully cooked and the bass itself was of good quality. The fish was let down by the lemon butter sauce which was too fatty and lacked sufficient balancing acidity, and soggy bak choi. Perhaps 11/20 for the dish overall, though the fish itself was much better than this, at least on the second attempt. A Dover sole was simply grilled and nicely cooked, served with a wedgeof lemon and melted butter, the good quality fish speaking for itself (at least 12/20). Vegetables are extra: mushy peas had good taste (12/20) and texture but the mash was gloopy, with too much butter (10/20).
Lemon tart had pastry that was too hard but a filling with a proper lemon taste (11/20) while apple tart had pastry that had been cooked too long, the apples OK but not quite caramelised but served with a separate caramel sauce and pleasant vanilla ice cream (10/20). Coffee was mediocre. Service, usually a perilous if entertaining aspect of dining in Essex, was well drilled, the waitresses friendly and efficient, though a little too keen on trying to sell additional bottles of water/wine/anything available.
Certainly the fish here seemed to me of good quality, and while the execution was variable, this is certainly food of a higher standard than in the vast majority of restaurants in Essex (I admit this is not setting the bar very high).