I WAS EXCITED to have the opportunity to sit down at the Fish and Chip Shop and share a plate with an actual British national. What I didn't account for were the mushy peas.
My lunch companion, the Mercury's resident Englishman Matt Davis, scooped a neon green spoonful onto his plate. "These are brilliant," he said. I looked at him skeptically, gulping down a forkful of the oddly flavored mush.
He took another greedy bite. "They look like peas, and yet...." He paused thoughtfully, his fork hovering just in front of his lips, "They taste more like meat, don't they?"
Indeed. They had a strange chemical quality, pushing them from the vegetable realm into someplace more foreign, as if they'd been preserved in animal fat just before rotting. I took a sip of my Scottish Irn-Bru; the iron-fortified, cream soda-flavored elixir commingled with the flavor of the peas. Were they authentic, I wondered?
"Yes, these are perfect," Davis said, smiling. "If you don't like them, then you just don't like mushy peas."
It's not that I didn't like them. In fact, I was glad to have experienced the dish, but I doubt I'll order it again. However, there is plenty on the Fish and Chip Shop menu that I would order again.
The Northeast fish and chip emporium—"chippy" if you're feeling particularly Anglo—is a bit of an anomaly. There are few places in the city where one can track down such a wide variety of British novelties. From deep-fried Mars Bars to Lilt soda to battered bangers, you can enjoy them all beneath the ever-present gaze of "Mikey the Fish," whose crayon-colored cartoon visage looks down from every wall. According to Davis, the atmosphere is just right. All that's missing is an up-front fryer and a display case filled with freshly fried fish. Oh, and tea to drink. "Preferably Earl Grey."
Five types of fish are available for the Fish and Chip Shop's signature dish, each a different experience. The cod is light and flaky with a delicate flavor, while the haddock is a bit more fatty and flavorful. Halibut, the popular Northwest bottom dweller, is lean and meaty, with a fishiness somewhere between the cod and the haddock, making it my favorite. Red snapper and Dover sole are also offered.
All the selections are sealed in the Fish and Chip Shop's revelatory batter, which crackles against the edge of the fork but remains firmly attached to the fish. This expert frying is best experienced with cod, the British standard. The crispy batter and light fish create a surprisingly airy meal considering it's been submerged in hot oil. The only thing that could improve the whole thing, according to Davis, would be to offer whole fish rather than fillets.
The thick accompanying chips (french fries, for the uninitiated) are equally well prepared. They are lightly fried and not overly crisp, offering a slight resistance to the bite before revealing a steamy, baked potato-like interior.
A word of warning: Don't expect boldness from these traditional fish and chips. The dish is very much a blank canvas meant to be splashed according to your whim with various condiments. Malt vinegar, salt, a mellow tangy tartar sauce, and lemon are all at your table. How you use them will ultimately determine how much you enjoy your meal.
If you're looking for more robust flavors on the Fish and Chip Shop menu, look to the sausage. A Scotch egg—hardboiled egg wrapped in sausage and fried—is a wonder of British cuisine, and even better with a slathering of spicy English mustard. As Davis packed away the rich wedges he explained cheerfully, "It's not about the egg. The egg means fuck-all. It's about the sausage."
Other sausage dishes include the sausage roll (sausage and puff pastry), and the battered sausage—a hedonistic porky delight encased in a crisp fried shell.
That batter gets around, and is used to great effect in the decadent deep-fried Mars Bars. A super sweet morsel, this batter-crisped fluffy candy comes with a caramel dipping sauce. It's best shared, or if you're eating with Matt Davis, worth trying before he gobbles it up, hopefully preventing him from "feeling sick" in the car afterward.
As Davis and I drove back to the office after our lunch on a hot summer afternoon, he suddenly became nostalgic for the chippies of his past. He thought wistfully of eating fish and chips in the first chilly days of fall, feeling the wet English winter coming on. I suspect that come November, Davis will make the Fish and Chip Shop a regular stop. Me too—mushy peas or not.