Thursday, 10 February 2011
Until very recently, there was a little kebab shop on High Holborn called Safadi Express. I'm not going to pretend it was great, because it wasn't, but given the choice between that and Eat and Pret and Eat and Pret ad infinitum in this part of town, it was clean and friendly, served nice fresh charcoal-grilled chicken wraps and did a generous portion of hummus and warm flatbread for £3.50. I went there quite often and never had cause to complain. Then one day last week, I popped down to street level at lunchtime and noticed it was all boarded up with a sign saying 'closed for refurbishment'. And barely a couple of days later, a garish blue frontage had replaced the old one, declaring the new resident to be Micky's Fish Restaurant and Takeaway, "Established 1962", "As seen on Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection". Presumably that refers to a different branch somewhere else as I know for a fact this one has been open 5 days, not 5 decades. I thought I'd give it a try anyway, as a decent fish & chip place is a very valuable thing to have within seconds of the office.
If the speed of the "refurbishment" and change of tenant was surprising from the outside, once inside it all made sense. Apart from new heat lamps for the fried products, and the addition of a bottle of malt vinegar on every table, barely anything had changed from the old place. There was still a glass cabinet selling trays of baklava, the tables and chairs were the same, and the ropes and tills and queuing process seemed identical. Even more weirdly, the staff seemed largely the same, too, as if they'd turned up for work as normal on a Monday morning only to be told they'd be serving fish and chips instead of kebabs from now on, and to get on with it. And if all that wasn't strange enough, I was handed a menu, which was exactly the same size and shape, with the same font and layout as Safadi Express. And then the penny dropped - the similarities between the two enterprises were just too great for Micky's to be anything other than a new venture from the same company, who clearly think that knocking out fish & chips requires exactly the same skill set and attitude as hummus and flatbread. How wrong they are.
I knew the fish was wrong even as I queued to pay - they looked limp and sad under the heat lamps, and there was something worryingly... rubbery about the way they moved when picked up to be boxed for order. But I was past the point of no return by now, so ploughed on anyway paying my £8 and taking the box back up to the office.
The haddock was, as I'm sure you have suspected from the rather protracted build-up, a disaster. Overcooked to a formless, dry paste inside and encased in soggy, chewy batter that required quite a bit of sawing to get through, it was lucky I had a proper metal knife from the office kitchen to use as the supplied plastic utensils wouldn't have been anywhere near up to the task. There was also a faintly funky smell from the hardly fresh fish, as if I needed any more reason to hate the thing. In the interests of fairness, the chips were fine, a good shape and creamy inside, although I detected hardly any of the requested salt & vinegar. Yeah, I'm clutching at straws. It was bad.
So there we have it, another mediocre London fish & chip shop to add to the long list of others to avoid but, you're possibly thinking, hardly worth getting so upset about. Why make an example of this place in a town where it's not even close to being the worst way of spending your lunch money? Maybe it's just something about the way it came into being; a careless, hastily rebranded corporate exercise by a group of suits who one day decided the profit margins were better from battered sausages than falafel. And perhaps also it's what the whole sorry affair says about the British attitude to eating out - that if you can't make it a franchise and farm it out to untrained grease monkeys on a minimum wage then it's not worth doing at all. But mainly, it's because I paid £8 for very poor fish and chips. And that makes me sad.