This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Fish and chips, that quintessentially British combination, is a dish that works
on many levels.
There is the crispness of the batter, the freshness and flakiness of the fish,
the irresistible nature of the chips, particularly if they are straight out of
the frying pan, and, finally, the extras. Salt and vinegar, and yes please to
plenty of both for me, though I have no time for the mushy peas that are a
traditional accompaniment in British fish and chip shops.
Fish and chips also works on another, more subliminal, level. Because it is a
combination that many of us are introduced to as children, it arrives in
subsequent servings topped with lashings of nostalgia. Just the mention of this
delectable duo brings back the memory of walking home after Cubs on a Tuesday
night in the 1950s and years later of an evening standing in a friend's garden
in Auckland watching excited children, including my own, demolish platefuls of
'fush'n'chups', as they are called in New Zealand.
Nostalgia takes many forms in The Fish & Chip Shop that has recently opened
on Upper Street, Islington, north London, a street that appears to be home to
more restaurants than any other in our capital.
There is the small, neatly folded menu written on brown paper. The sepia-coated
wallpaper shares scenes of the British seaside. A new wooden board behind the counter
by the entrance lists all the fish that could be on offer, a fixture that would
look right at home if it were hanging in a fish restaurant close to the sea
shore rather than in one by an extremely busy road. On a slightly more
intimidating note, one of the larger tables at the back of what was formerly a
Moroccan restaurant is fixed to the legs of an old pommel horse, which I recall
having to vault over in the school gym. It can accommodate eight.
On the two occasions I have eaten here, the menu brought as much pleasure to my
Belgian and Australian colleagues as it did to me, principally because they
were intrigued by one starter they had never seen before. Dorset rock oysters
and half pints of prawns may be justifiably commonplace today but what, they
wanted to know, are London particular fritters?
The waiter, definitely not English, patiently explained that these are formed
from the ingredients of the soup whose thick consistency took its name from the
London fogs of yesteryear. Here the soup's ingredients, peas and cubes of diced
ham, are shaped into fritters and then fried. They are fun.
Our various main courses were, too: half a grilled lobster from the Isle of
Man; a large piece of haddock fried in a batter using Beavertown beer brewed in
east London; a bowl of breaded scampi; and a fresh salad of endive, beetroot
and flakes of Arbroath smokie, another particular delicacy, this time from the
east coast of Scotland. And while all this delighted the stomach, I could not
help but notice on the far wall and the back of the menu, the restaurant's
charming logo: the ampersand that links the words fish & chips has had an anchor
cleverly added to one of its tails.
Saying goodbye outside the restaurant's freshly painted façade, I also noticed
the letters DM painted in the top right-hand corner. These are the initials of
Des McDonald and this restaurant marks his debut as an independent
Until 18 months ago, McDonald was CEO of Caprice Holdings, for whom he had
opened Scotts, 34, and several restaurants outside the UK and was responsible
for over 2,000 staff.
He hesitated when I asked him how many he is responsible for today. 'Maybe 50',
he replied, 'but I now know that this is a leap I should have made years ago,
even though I haven't had a day off in months.'
During the 15 months this restaurant, and a barbecue restaurant called Q due to
open its first branch in Camden Town in the autumn, have moved from the drawing
board to fruition, McDonald has experienced restaurant life at a different
level in the pecking order.
The most frustrating aspect has been dealing with landlords over that
invariably elusive first site. 'They all say get in touch once the first one is
open. But now that Islington is serving 300 on a busy Saturday night, they are
all phoning me up with offers. I plan to open a couple more in Covent Garden
and Notting Hill Gate quite soon.'
The second has been to stick to a principle that McDonald first appreciated
when he began as a cook: that it is incumbent on every restaurateur to make
life as physically easy for the cooks as possible. McDonald spent £400,000 on
this restaurant but a significant amount went on the kitchen, which he
continually referred to as 'the engine room', a kitchen that was manufactured
by Adisa in Barcelona, another city renowned for frying fish.
Indulgence in this area was made possible by restraint in another, notably
design, where McDonald confessed that this particular opening has taught him a valuable
lesson. On the walls of the back area of the restaurant opposite the open
kitchen are a series of a couple of dozen reclaimed wooden frames, only a few
of which have pictures in them. 'I intended to fill them all but then Lou Davies
of Box 9 Design said that I shouldn't, just leave them blank. The food, and the
memories it conveys, should be the main attraction.'
The Fish & Chip Shop 189 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1RQ; tel 020 3227
Lunch/dinner £25 per head.