There is something infinitely comforting about tucking into a portion of hot, fried, golden fish, accompanied by the crisp yet fluffy texture of a perfectly fried chip. The only serious competition to chicken tikka masala as the UK’s national dish, this simple meal that teeters between humble workingman’s lunch to seaside holiday staple has evolved into a national institution on the island, a testament to the true unspoken benefits of immigration and cultural (read culinary) exchange.
The debate, however, continues to rage on about the true origins of fish and chips in the UK. Some attribute fried, battered fish to Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain, others to an enterprising Lancastrian food seller, while the chip unquestionably traces its roots back to the continent, to Belgium or France.
Somewhere along the way, the decision to pair both ingredients resulted in the culinary double act that is on par with macaroni and cheese, bacon and eggs, spaghetti and meatballs and, for a touch of local inclusivity, rojak and cendol. So, should you happen to be in the UK, here are our top three favourites to check out.
While the iconic dish to order at J Sheekey’s is undoubtedly its famous fish pie, if it is a posh piece of haddock you are after, you cannot go wrong in this classic post-theatre dining room in the West End. Its pescatarian pedigree is impressive, dating back to the late 19th century, and its décor — stately and elegant — only serves to remind you of it.
Certainly, fine fish and seafood do not immediately spring to mind when one is trawling this part of London. Dense with culture vultures, pub-crawlers and tourists in search of Eros, the West End and its proximity to theatres and Chinatown means that dinner might be more Angus and Aberdeen steakhouses or “sweet and sour on rice” versus shrimp cocktail with Marie-Rose sauce to start. In all, it is a good idea to escape the Soho hubbub by nipping into J Sheekey’s genteel interior.
Start with a selection of local shellfish (Lindisfarne and Morecambe Bay oysters, the oldie but goodie potted shrimps on toast or whole Devon cock crab) before tucking into the fried fillet of haddock served with chips and mushy peas. If you wish to go full-on with the fish theme, there is an intriguingly named J Sheekey Fish Bowl listed under Desserts which I have yet to try.
The restaurant also continues with its “Sheekey Secrets” series of informal conversations over dinner with the great names of London’s theatreland. Priced at £100 per person, it includes a three-course dinner, half a bottle of wine, a The Macallan cocktail and water, tea or coffee. Last year’s series featured Celia Imrie and Leslie Caron, and scheduled for June 17 is Bafta, Tony and Olivier award-winner Robert Lindsay, followed by Bill Paterson in July and Coronation Street star Maureen Lipman in September. Do call ahead to reserve though.
Kerbisher & Malt
It has been an eventful run for brothers-in-law Nick Crossley and Saul Reuben ever since their fish and chippery opened eight years ago, in Brook Green, along Shepherds Bush Road. Kerbisher & Malt takes its name from two references — an old boat owned by Nick’s grandfather, who was a herring fisherman in Norfolk, and malt vinegar, which no Englishman worth his salt would dream of having a fish and chip meal without. Kerbisher, to their credit, uses Sarson’s. Those in the know would recognise the finer flavours of this iconic British vinegar brand.
Kerbisher & Malt makes its name based on its famously fresh and crisp fish, all cooked to order and fished from sustainable sources, and chips, which are peeled and cut in-house before being twice-cooked for optimum yumminess — think piping hot and airily velvety within while being crisp and crunchy without. To those who have suffered the indignity of a soggy chip wrapped in greasy newspaper before, no more need for worry.
The menu is simple and to the point: four options of fish (haddock, cod, plaice and coley) served battered, grilled or cooked with matzo meal, and with chips on the side. For those who need to supplement their meal somewhat, there is also scampi (to rekindle memories of old pub lunches), whitebait, chip butties, calamari, fish fingers and fish bites, the latter two designed to please even the most persnickety toddler. Interestingly, for a place that offers kosher matzo, battered or grilled pork sausages are also part of the meal plan here as is halloumi cheese (try the grilled one for your taste buds to momentarily transport you to Greece).
Fish and chip dinners at Kerbisher also come with all the bells and whistles, and sides that sound as exciting as the mains, with mushy or garden peas, fennel and dill salad, pickled onion rings, coleslaw and gherkin all listed. There are three choices of sauce available — tartare, mayo (regular, lemon or chipotle) and red curry — and if you would like to complete the Brit Eat experience in authentic style, be sure to wash it all down with a swig of Kerbisher’s own pale ale.
Kerbisher & Malt, 164 Shepherds Bush Road, W6 7PB. Sun-Mon, 12-9.30pm; Tues-Sat, 12-10pm.
The Mayfair Chippy
Posh Mayfair is never short of establishments at which to drop generous wads of cash in exchange for a nice meal in equally nice surroundings. There is Kai, which serves gourmet Chinese cuisine helmed by Malaysian-born chef Alex Chow and owner Bernard Yeoh. Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch, in Conduit Street, and its famous egg-shaped loo pods are just a short stroll away. Oyster fans, meanwhile, know to make a beeline for Scott’s at Mount Street, the same way Roka is practically a byword for those who like trendy Japanese fare served with a side helping of glossy people-watching. Fish and chips, however, is not something the neighbourhood is famous for, that is until the advent of The Mayfair Chippy.
The establishment started in 2012 as The GrEAT British, an informal British dining room, before transforming into an upmarket chippery. This rebranding was accompanied by a full makeover by Natalie Stephenson and Juliette Wright of Stephenson Wright Interiors who did a particularly sleek job, with framed whimsical watercolours of various fish and seafood on the walls, a smart checquerboard tiled floor and even neon gas lights that spell out “Can’t stay? Take me away” for their takeaway counter.
There are oysters, crab and mussels for starters but, unless you are exceptionally hungry, just dive straight into the Mayfair Classic — your choice of cod or haddock, mushy peas, tartare or chip shop curry sauce or HP gravy. Should anyone in your party be vegan, the Chippy thoughtfully offers the alternative of fried jackfruit with tofu and lemon fillet with vegan tartare sauce even.
For those eating with carnivores, the bubble ‘n’ squeak made using smoked Sussex cheese sausages is well-worth part of your calorie quota as well as the shepherd’s pie, made using braised lamb shoulder. And if ever you have been charmed by stories of British India, then a portion of the kedgeree fish cakes made with smoked haddock and served with curried leeks and a Kentish egg is in order. This is a great spot to carbo-load in between serious shopping time at nearby Selfridges. But if you are not in the vicinity, you can always mosey over to its two other outlets: in the City and Clapham.
The Mayfair Chippy, 14 North Audley Street, Mayfair, W1K 6WE. Mon-Sun, 12-10pm.
This article first appeared on June 3, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.