Friday, 28 February 2014
Restaurant review: The Fish and Chip Shop, Islington
There are two things about food that I tend to get ridiculed for the most. While the first is the way that I eat pizza, a story for another time, the second is that my favourite thing to eat is fish and chips. Despite all of the cooking that I do, I just can’t get enough of it. It’s that comforting smell that cuts through the cold on a wintery evening. The ‘fuffing’ that results from not letting the chips cool down. The soothingly greasy crunch of the batter and the melting, delicate fish. I harp on about memories and how they connect with food, and to me fish and chips is sitting next to dad in the car on the way back from the football with the plastic bag burning my thighs and the steam getting in the windows. Or sitting at my grandparents picking what seemed like the millionth bone out of the cod. It’s something so familiar but never gets old, and always the menu choice in otherwise unreliable eateries.
But going down the chippy has never been fancy. It was just the thing when faced with an empty fridge or unexpected crowd. That shop light that you wished would still be lit when all others had closed. To me it’s just as much about the situation in which it is being consumed, improved tenfold if I happen to be anywhere coastal. While storms were battering Mull over New Year we were sat on the front wrapped up in the warmth of stodgy vinegary chips. And my trips to Devon and Cornwall are never without a harbour-side fish supper. It is perhaps in Padstow where Stein set my current benchmark. I had never sampled deep-fried monkfish before, but in the still afternoon sun watching the mullet ease around the moored boats it was perfect. True, monkfish might be more fancy than the norm, yet it was still housed in a cardboard box and we were still offered a cup of tea to accompany (something that despite my love of the food, I have never understood). In reality the consistency is really the thing. You can get some pretty awful cases of thick, flabby batter and spongy fish from time to time, but mostly you get just what you expect. I’m not that fussy. Even to the point where normally I’m a stickler for a crisp, fluffy chip, yet find love for the thick mulchy sog when the potatoes have been patiently wrapped that bit too long.
So not too much pressure for somewhere seemingly trying to add a bit of posh to all this. It made me a bit nervous to be honest, like when I encounter the word ‘gourmet’ in a restaurant name. I am a man of simple needs; all I wanted was crispy batter and freshness, not for my fish to appear in a tuxedo. I worried that the simplicity of it all might be muddied by an injection of class. But what The Fish and Chip Shop did really well on was changing the experience. Unfortunately not every chippy finds itself in Port Isaac or Oban, and in reality a lot of the ones that aren’t are a pretty sad affair. The only time that you would even consider eating-in in these places was if a hurricane was forcing the door shut. Or if you were in Brighton, and you fancied adorning some bunny ears and joining a hen do. And when these occasions force you to, the sticky table covers and bleach white lighting never make you hang about for long. But on Upper Street, the dim light glittered off the cut glass and a happy bustle thronged. Like everyone had bought their takeaways to the same place to have their family gatherings.
Despite these early plus points I was most concerned about the food. The menu read confidently, betraying the simplicity of just serving out of the fryer. Scallops, langoustines, woodland mushrooms and a curry sat alongside the battered options. It all sounded rather nice. We began with a small platter of tiny sweet queenies posing daintily in their shells. They had been treated properly and paired with the usual suspects and were devoured swiftly, like a witty compère before the main show. Really I was only there for one thing, here performing in locally-brewed ale. My main anxiety was the trendiness, and the declining scale this usually inflicts. There’s no room for small portions when it comes to food like this. It needs to warm your bones and fill your stomach. No smears or quenelles here, please.
This was of course quashed as our table became a tetris game to accommodate each of the different dishes. I am always thrown when fish or steak are served all alone on a plate, looking like the last person in the school team selection. If this was attempted elegance then it was quickly smothered with a scattering of chips and a dollop of tartare. That was better. And to my relief, delicious. The surroundings and fancy sides such as cabbage and bacon may have implied one thing, but when it came to the fish they didn’t faff around; they just did it well. My tummy was happy and my head saturated by glorious nostalgia. A mug of greying tea was replaced with fruity ale and we even had battered pickles. These onions and cucumbers read like the ultimate bar snack, and despite not quite matching the hype were still moreishly consumed. Mushy peas are a contentious issue, and here they diplomatically offered both crushed or marrowfat. I yearned for a bowl simply seasoned and buttered but that’s just me.
All deeply satisfying stuff. Our only complaint was the layout, which could have its own seafood simile. With tables tightly packed in we suffered the occasional bum hovering perilously close to our eagerly awaited fish as our neighbours squeezed to and fro. But it was a small price to pay for the bustle that it helped create. We left with that wry glow that a lovely evening had been had. At last a bright star in the largely swathing mediocrity of Upper Street. Who would of thought that humble old fish and chips would be the cause of all that.