Friday, 28 June 2013
The Fish and Chip Shop, Islington
The cliché is that you can't get decent fish and chips in London. This is, of course, nonsense - Masters Superfish in Waterloo is very good, as is the Golden Hind in Marylebone, and Kerbisher & Malt in Kensington, and I'm told that Poppies (Spitalfields and Camden) are worth a try too. What is true to say, is that for a city this size and given the obvious demand for good fish and chips, there aren't nearly enough places where you can get it. So you can imagine my delight when I learned about The Fish and Chip Shop in Islington, bringing (we were promised) proper battered cod, haddock and plaice to a part of town not hitherto blessed with options in this field. Or in many others, come to that.
It didn't start well. Not realising you could book, we'd turned up earlyish but still the only available space was at the bar, an area of the restaurant designed in such a way - seats too hard, counter too small and too high - not to encourage lingerers. Still, staff were friendly and some powerful, ice cold Beavertown IPA soon appeared and we settled in to browse the vast menu.
First ordered, and first to arrive, were the mysterious "London particular fritters". For whatever reason I had envisaged some kind of crunchy snack made with beer batter, but instead we were presented with three croquettes, generously proportioned and full of a rich pea and ham hock filling. They were nice enough but for £6 not exactly what I would consider a bargain. Compared to what was to follow though, they were positively delightful.
Let's get the Mushy Pea Rant out of the way before we go any further. I understand that for various reasons, none of them good, fish restaurants in London - particularly the snobbier ones although this is not always the case - have a problem with serving proper marrowfat mushy peas. Ignoring for now the question of whether they taste better than garden peas (of course they bloody do) or whether they're more appropriate to serve with fish and chips (of course they bloody are), the fact is, most of the time all you will have available is crushed or whole garden peas. OK, fine, whatever, your funeral.
But if you DO insist on only serving garden peas, DO NOT CALL THEM MUSHY PEAS ON YOUR MENU. Ordering a side of mushy peas and receiving a sad little tin of crushed petits pois is like ordering a lobster sandwich and being given a frozen prawn cocktail. They're not the same thing AT ALL and not only are you possibly in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act (1968), you run a serious risk of demonstrating to your customers that you don't have a bleeding clue what you're doing.
Fish and Chip Shop do not have a bleeding clue what they're doing. Plaice in batter, the one thing as a Fish and Chip Shop you are not allowed to cock up, was a disaster - anaemic, grease-heavy batter stinking of old oil, encasing a fish so overcooked it had lost any bright flakiness it may once have had and was now a mushy, sickening mess. Chips were fine, but were too thin (at least they weren't frites, but proper thick chip shop chips are as integral to the chip shop experience as brown sauce in a bacon sandwich), and curry sauce was too runny despite having a decent flavour.
Lemon sole wasn't quite the tragedy the plaice was, but still was overcooked and had none of that lovely firm texture you should get from sole. Done correctly, you should be able to lift the flesh off the bones in satisfying firm chunks, but this poor beast was closer to mashed potato. The skin was nicely seasoned with tarragon and you could tell that it had once been a good fresh fish, but it was not otherwise enjoyable.
We would have liked to have tried just one "wally" (gherkin) and one pickled onion but were told in no uncertain terms that it was £1 per type of pickle, not £1 for the lot (there was also egg) and so we reluctantly ordered the two portions. What arrived was a plate of three massive gherkins and three huge pickled onions. Why on God's green earth anyone thought forcing three times the amount of required pickles on customers was a good idea I don't know, but there they were anyway, perfectly OK as pickles go but just way too much of them. Would £1 for a gherkin, onion and egg on a single plate really have been that difficult to organise? I can't imagine so.
With a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (annoyingly kept in a non-insulated bucket lined with a couple of inches of crushed ice - great if you like the last half glass of your wine to be ice cold, not great in any other respect) this catalogue of irritations, pains and downright calamaties came to a whopping £90. I realise this is North London, and fish costs more than it did, and all those etched mirrors and carved wooden details have to be paid for somehow, but even if the food had been good, that is still a lot of money. The mistakes with the cooking and mushy pea-gate just added insult to injury.
I have to entertain the idea that perhaps the Fish and Chip Shop had an off night, and that at some other time someone who knows how to operate a fryer may be working in the kitchen. There is that possibility. But I can only speak as I find, and while I do know plenty of people who've really enjoyed their time at the Fish and Chip Shop, I'm afraid I don't have the stomach, or the funds, to give it another go. Not even if they started serving proper mushy peas.
EDIT: A friend has swiftly been in touch to inform me that actually, North London has plenty of great places to eat. I'm happy to put the record straight on that. It does, but unfortunately they're all in North London. I am therefore going to start a campaign to get John Salt, the Drapers Arms, Trullo, Assiette Anglais, the Pig and Butcher and Trangallan to move to SW11. That'll teach him.