Thursday, 10 July 2014
The Swan, Southport
Today I'm going to do something I have only ever done once before on this blog - re-review a restaurant. Unlike the other time I re-reviewed a place, however, this is not a panicky PR-led excursion on the back of a disastrous first visit. Nor is this even the chance to update a score following a dramatic change in quality or new direction. Quite the opposite; the subject in question has varied very little about the way it goes about things for at least as long as I've been alive, and probably well before that.
No, I'm re-reviewing the Swan, a fish and chip shop in Southport, for two reasons. Firstly, because it's brought me more joy over the years than almost anywhere else I can think of, and this post is an extended "thank you" for countless deeply brilliant dinners from as far back as I can remember. Secondly, and more importantly, it's because as many people as possible from around the world - and specifically London - need to sit down to a plate of haddock and chips at this Merseyside institution and discover exactly how badly wrong they themselves have been getting it so far.
Fish and chips is a simple concept: battered, deep-fried white fish, chips, marrowfat mushy peas. Malt vinegar and salt to finish, and perhaps some ground white pepper if you so wish. But let's not be confusing "simple" with "easy". There's a longish list of "do"s and "don't"s I could rattle off at this point but to save time (and eye-rolling from anyone from North of Watford who consider it all to be bleeding obvious anyway), here are the main irrefutable characteristics of fish & chips:
- Acceptable fish are cod, haddock or plaice. Add whiting or pollack or God knows what else to the menu if you must, but if at least one of cod, haddock or plaice aren't also available, you've fallen at the first hurdle.
- Mushy peas are marrowfat peas, not crushed garden peas, and certainly not minted. If you're very worried about the artifically dyed bright-green mushies, then you can use the less colourful undyed, but if you start dealing with garden peas you deserve to be a laughing stock.
- Chips, not wedges, and not fries. There is a correct size for fish & chip chips, thin enough to give a good bite while not making you feel you're tackling a Sunday roast, but not too thin to soak up too much salt & vinegar. And mess about all you like with beef dripping and triple-cooking by all means, but all I'll say is if the Swan make the best chips in Britain (which they do) using nothing more than vegetable oil, there's no excuse for anyone else reinventing the wheel.
Those are the basics, then, but needless to say there's plenty of room for manoeuvre here and using this simple formula it's still possible to get things badly wrong. Peas aside, for example, the Fish and Chip Shop in Islington did most things right on paper, but still somehow ended up with a ludicrous inflated balloon of pallid batter encasing a tragically overcooked mush of cod inside. And mess up your cooking temperatures and you run the risk of ending up with those horrid, soggy orange chips that make you feel ill just looking at them; cooking the perfect chips is a science all to itself.
For the masterclass, then, we must return to the Swan. Here the chips are never deep golden brown like what seems to be considered "correct" in fancy London restaurants; they are lighter, the larger ones with gentle give rather than an obvious crunch but (if you're lucky) still plenty of the smaller crunchy bits to chase around the plate or bag towards the end of your dinner. The mushy peas are earthy and rich, thick enough to pile up on a chip but not dry or claggy.
The fish itself, bright as the driven snow and with the kind of loose, defined flakes you get from timing the cooking just-so, is encased in a firm but remarkably thin batter that somehow (and there's always a touch of the black magic to the best chip shop fish) manages to retain its deep golden hue and snap right until the final mouthful. The cross-section here shows you just how thin the batter can be; if you have three inches of aggressively crunchy batter to drill through before you reach the fish, it displays a lack of confidence in your frying skills as well as a worrying attitude to your customers' long-term health.
In an ideal world, your friendly waitress would bring a plate of white bread and butter to use making chip butties. Also in an ideal world you'll be eating your food either out of a bag on the seafront or in a room largely unchanged since the 1980s populated by every cross-section of Southport society. You'll probably also want a wall studded with clippings from the local press, and a bill that never exceeds £10/head. In short, in an ideal world you will be eating fish and chips in the Swan, Southport. But hey, we can't all be that fortunate.