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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 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 a more subliminal level. A combination that many of us are introduced to as children, it arrives topped with lashings of nostalgia. Just the mention of it brings back, for me, the memory of walking home after Cubs on a Tuesday night in the 1950s; or of an evening in a friend’s garden in Auckland, watching excited children, my own included, demolish platefuls of “fush’n’chups”, as they are called in New Zealand.
Nostalgia takes many forms in The Fish & Chip Shop, recently opened on Upper Street in Islington, north London (a street that seems to have more restaurants than any other in the capital). There is the neatly folded menu on brown paper; the sepia-tinged wallpaper with seaside scenes; the wooden board at the entrance, listing all the fish that could be on offer. On a slightly more intimidating note, a table at the back of this formerly Moroccan restaurant is fixed to the legs of an old pommel horse. I recall having to vault over one in the school gym.
On the two occasions I have eaten here, the menu brought as much pleasure to my Belgian and Australian companions as it did to me. They were particularly intrigued by a starter they had never seen before: Dorset rock oysters and half pints of prawns may be commonplace today but what, they wanted to know, are “London particular fritters”?
The waiter, definitely not English, patiently explained that these are based on London particular soup, which took its name from the city’s fogs of yesteryear. The soup’s ingredients, peas and 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, a delicacy from the east coast of Scotland.
Saying goodbye outside the restaurant’s freshly painted façade, I 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 restaurateur.
Until 18 months ago, he was CEO of Caprice Holdings, for whom he opened Scotts, 34, and several restaurants outside the UK. There he 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.”
In the 15 months it took for this restaurant (and a barbecue restaurant called Q, due to open its first branch in Camden town this autumn) to move from drawing board to fruition, McDonald experienced restaurant life at a different level in the pecking order. The most frustrating aspect was 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.”
McDonald has stuck to a principle that he first appreciated when he began as a cook: that it is incumbent on a restaurateur to make life as easy for the cooks as possible. McDonald spent £400,000 on the restaurant but a significant amount went on the kitchen, which he refers to as “the engine room”. It was made by Adisa in Barcelona, another city renowned for frying fish.
Indulgence in this area was made possible by restraint in another, namely design, where McDonald says he learnt a valuable lesson. On the walls at the back of the restaurant are a series of reclaimed wooden frames, only a few with 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.”
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The Fish & Chip Shop
189 Upper St, Islington, London N1 1RQ, 020 3227 0979, www.thefishandchipshop.com
Lunch/dinner £25 per head