Given that fish and chips is the national dish (curry aside, of course), you would expect it to be plentiful and of high quality in the capital. Not so. Plentiful it may be, but the quality is not as wide spread as it ought to be. The first meal I ate in my current house was fish and chips from the Ocean Fish Bar on the corner of Ernest Street. I’m convinced it was just an enormous piece of very hard batter.
One rare exception to the dearth of fine London chipperies is Sea Fish, at 205 Upper Street in Islington, which in addition to having excellent quality fried fish (but poor, floppy chips), is BYO and opposite one of the best places to buy wine in the capital, namely the Sampler.
But there is a new entrant in the “quality London chippy” stakes, namely The Fish and Chip Shop, which is at 189 Upper Street in Islington, 16 whole doors away from Sea Fish, providing the deprived residents of Islington with the extra supply of quality fish and chips that they so desperately need. Why they couldn’t have opened up at, say, 230 Mile End Road (to pluck a London address totally at random and in no way related to its proximity to my residence) as an alternative to the 6 kebab/fried chicken shops on that single block, I don’t know.
So, is it any good? Let’s deal with the less important things first. To start, the name. “The Fish and Chip Shop”. Bit presumptuous, isn’t it? Reminds me of “The Piano Concerto” by Michael Nyman – the inoffensive minimalist ditty composed for the Jane Campion film The Piano – and so named as if to sweep aside the 300 years of the genre that predated it. Mozart composed 27 of them, pretty much all of which are in the standard repertoire, but you know, whatevs, Michael Nyman can have the definite article reserved for his briefly fashionable work, what with all of three commercially available recordings of it, as heard on your mum’s CD player circa Boxing Day 1993 and long since forgotten.
Back to the Fish and Chip Shop. Next complaint, it is ersatz, as is the current fashion. Vibe wise, it’s not as bad as Poppies (excellent fried fish in Spitalfields, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), Mishkin’s (excellent Jewish deli-style food in Covent Garden, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), Ed’s Easy Diner (terrible diner food in various locations, pretending to be a 1950s American diner), or The Diner (2010s American diner pretending to be a 1950s American diner). But still, why have “Kippers, Fisherman’s Breakfasts” on a window in distressed gold paint to make it look like it’s been there for 70 years when it hasn’t, and in any event when the establishment serves neither of those things? If you’re going to give your restaurant a name that implies “no nonsense, what you see is what you get”, then why not make the interior follow suit? I can understand the appeal of wanting to recreate a bygone era that is not so architecturally sterile as our current one, but sometimes I think you just have to suck it up. Especially if you’re opening a chippy, where nobody ought to care about such things, or other things like highly stylized greaseproof paper for wrapping chips in, bearing the place’s (admittedly quite clever) logo (pictured).
Now that I’ve got that out of the system, onto the food. Now there are glimpses of brilliance here, but the bottom line is that I really wanted to love this place (who doesn’t want to love a definitive chippy?) and, well, sorry, I don’t. Let me explain.
“London particular fritters”, i.e. little pea and ham bon-bons, are delicious. Whoever took the idea of pea and ham soup and turned it into something deep-friable is a genius. The accompanying mustard sauce could be sharper (a theme to which I will return). The prawn cocktail is pretty good too. It’s served in an enamel camping dish, eschewing the aspirational tone often invoked by serving it in a cocktail glass (arguably going too far the other way though), and it is properly served at room temperature, not disgustingly fridge cold like something you might be served on an airline. The marie rose sauce is pretty orthodox – erring on the side of ketchup mixed with mayonnaise – which is no bad thing, but it doesn’t have any of the pep of the better recipes for cocktail sauce. (The best in my opinion is Mark Hix’s from British Seasonal Food – which includes tabasco, Worcester sauce, Pernod and dill, amongst other things).
As for the mains, a fish curry seems inviting but is a waste of time. Mushy fish swims in a thin, insipid “curry” sauce (ha ha, it’s just a tin of tomatoes with a few cumin seeds in it; this fish curry by Rick Stein, which I made last week, craps all over it). The mushy peas are mushy, and peas, but not “mushy peas” in the true sense. I don’t mind that, because “mushy peas” are fucking disgusting, but I can understand why someone wanting true “mushy peas” might not be terribly impressed.
But what about the fish and chips? After all, everything else is just a side-show, isn’t it? Well, I’m afraid they’re just not that good. Fried cod comes out as bronzed and elegant as a Henry Moore sculpture. Promising indeed. But inside a perfectly crisp batter is just bland, disintegrating fish, with a slightly metallic edge, to be honest. Accompanying tartare sauce is, again, not sharp enough. Chips are better than the normal floppy chip shop chips (an English person is going to have to sit me down I’m afraid and explain why on earth these seem to be preferred up and down the land), but are neither particularly fat nor particularly crisp, being the only two properties one really should care about in a chip.
They serve wine in tumblers, which is unforgiveable. Part of this “pretending we’re downmarket” trend when the prices show they are anything but. They should get some proper wine glasses, and for that matter, some proper wine on the menu. Fish and chips is a fine meal deserving of being accompanied by the finest wine available in the circumstances. The wines are acceptable but there’s nothing exciting on the list. Put cheap sauvignon on the menu if you must, but come on guys, this is in Islington, there are going to be plenty of chardonnay socialists out there, quite literally, wanting a proper Puligny Montrachet with their supper, and they should be able to get it.
So, yeah. Sorry guys, but I’m sticking with Sea Fish.