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The Joyful Pursuit of Fish and Chips

How did I get on this track? Surely I’d have been better off looking for the best kale salad? But I’m in search of the best fried food. I know where it started. I blame Halifax. I’ve had exceptional fish & chips, and I keep chasing it in restaurants around the northern Atlantic Ocean trying to find the best in an evasive, sometimes frustrating mission.

The very best I’ve ever had was a lunch special at The Five Fishermen Restaurant in Halifax. It was super fresh with a crisp, light batter and chips seasoned just right, all presented beautifully on a modest plating. It was an epiphany, and I haven’t had a better one yet in Canada, New England, New York, London or Scotland. Are there equal or better fish & chips in those places? Probably, but I haven’t found it yet.

Now to be fair, The Five Fisherman is a fine dining experience with a menu to be savored, and I was the right audience for that dish. Pubs and most restaurants that serve fish & chips aren’t focused on the delivery of a world class dish, they’re simply feeding the masses. So I don’t bash the places that don’t do it well, I just don’t mention them at all. I’ve had truly awful fish and chips only once, in the shadow of the London Eye, at a tourist trap. Soggy, greasy and full of bones. I had one bit and threw away the rest. Shameful waste of food, and a fish that died in vain. I had no business ordering anything in that place so the fault lies squarely with me.

But as you might expect, that was the exception in London. The city has some excellent fish & chips places in every corner. Pub food bliss with large servings of fish overflowing the dish, mounted on a healthy pile of chips (“next to” is the preferred serving, thank you). The only thing stopping me from ordering it everywhere was a natural desire to eat a bit of everything, but I give a respectful nod to the UK for the consistently great fish & chips. Shame my last experience having it there before leaving was that tourist trap place. Circumstances being what they were it was what it was…

As I’ve hinted, the best fish & chips offers fresh, flaky white fish (Cod, please) in a light, crispy batter, served with a reasonable pile of crisp fried potatoes sliced just right. A side of fresh coleslaw is welcome. Tartar sauce, lemon and ketchup should be strictly optional, not required to get through your meal. When I see a piece of fish presented with a slice of lemon already sitting on the fish I think “not fresh fish”, and when the fish is thrown on top of the chips I think, “soggy chips”. Yes, it’s a basic, working-class dish, but presentation still matters.

I’ve written close to 500 words on the modest topic of fish & chips. Candidly, I could go on much longer on the topic. Ultimately, my search continues for a better fish & chips dish. Like any experience, once you’ve had something truly exceptional most things afterwards won’t measure up. But there’s joy in the pursuit.

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