What makes a chippy truly great? Esquire magazine formally addressed the question in a recent search for the best traditional chip shop in Britain, and found its answer in Colmans Fish and Chips in Tyne and Wear. With blackboards chalking up the catch of the day and scrubbed, white-tiled walls, it is, the judges declared, ‘the coastal town chippy you remember from childhood’.
The latest venture from former Ivy head chef Des McDonald, The Fish & Chip Shop in Upper Street, north London, has neither Colmans's fourth-generation chefs nor an appetite-forming North Sea breeze to its advantage.
It does, however, have a middling commitment to the traditional spirit of the chippy. The ceiling paint looks artfully tired to suggest an age-battered fish-sorting warehouse, and the walls are lined with alternating colourful prints and brown clapboard panels. There are bottles of Ketchup on the tables, the light bulbs are bare and old Pink Floyd tracks are playing in the background.
This is Islington though, so the humble chippy concept is stretched relatively thinly among the vintage leather banquette seating, tasteful teal walls, and chips ‘double fried in refined rapeseed oil’ to ensure sustainability.
The crunchy chips are no worse off for it. The fish is sustainably sourced too, from origins approved by the Marine Stewardship Council, and shipped into the kitchens every morning fresh from the coast: specifically from Brixham, in south Devon. It is served in the restaurant or as a takeaway (£9 for cod and chips), which you can wait for at an authentically fishy smelling front bar while watching the chef shuck piles of Dorset rock oysters.
Tentative oyster eaters (that's me) can buy them individually for £2.50 each, served with a slither of seaweed, lemon and a garlic and chilli sauce, and they slip down deliciously.
As do the chunky pea and ham-filled London Particular Fritters, £8 for five, a hefty starter for one especially if you follow it with the full fish and chips package. You should though: their own-recipe batter is made with local Camden beer and the one mouthful of battered cod I tried was not enough (£9, plaice and haddock available too), especially with a gravy boat-full of garlic mayonnaise poured over it. It isn't hard to see why expats rate truly good fish and chips forth-highest in a list of things they miss most about Britain.
The brown-paper menus have lots of other options if Churchill’s “good companions” don’t appeal. My shrimp burger with spicy tartar sauce (£11) was tasty, though listening to the noise next door were making about their Isle of Man lobster (£15 for half, £29 for a whole lobster), that may have been the superior choice.
It feels slightly wrong to follow fish and chips with pudding but if you must, the burnt chocolate cream (£5) is incredibly rich and delicious.
Des’s team have been particularly inventive with their cocktail list – another prerequisite for any Islington eatery worth their sea salt but I liked their mad inclusion of ingredients from the food menu (peas feature) and the way they are served with stripy seaside fairground straws. The marmalade cocktail below is very sweet, but very good.
The Fish and Chip Shop Lady Marmalade Cocktail
– 25ml gin
– 25ml Campari
– 25ml lemon juice
– 2 bar spoons of marmalade
– A dash of orange bitters
Shake and fine strain. Finish with an orange twist and serve straight up.
The Fish & Chip Shop (189 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1RQ), only takes some bookings. Call 020 3227 0979 or visit www.thefishandchipshop.uk.com