Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fish & Chips

There’s a list of a few things that we wanted to accomplish before we’re ready to leave England.  Visit the Crown Jewels… check.  Take a picture from the middle of the Millenium Bridge… check.  Walk across the London Bridge, get a picture in a red telephone booth, visit Arsenal… check, check, check.   Then came the surprisingly difficult task in the form of a British food cliche; fish and chips. 

London is incredibly multicultural.  Indian food places are ubiquitious, as are Turkish Donor Kebab stands and as well as Spanish tapas restaurant.  Good fish and chips were harder to find.  When we did find them, they were usually a Fish and Chips/Burger/Donor Kebab place that was hardly the quintessential experience we were looking for. To top it off, Seattle has awesome Fish and Chips places in our own right, so our standards are pretty high.
Two days ago, we were in London looking to satisfy the Fish and Chips portion of our trip, so we turn to the Lonely Planet, which guides us to Albion, a “self-consciously retro” restaurant serving up “top-quality British Classics”.  Now for reference, we’re usually spending about £10, or $16 per dinner.   Albion is rated ££ by the Planet, so is a bit more expensive.  I was hoping for £20.  We’d spent less on the dorm than on the private room the night before so hand some room in the budget.  Plus, we were gonna get some good Fish and Chips!
A ride on the DLR train followed by two transfers on the London Underground later brought us to Old St, and another ten minutes of walking to gets to Albion.  It was a neat little place, if a little hipstery for our tastes.   The hostess shows us to our seat, which is the first sign in we’re in a place that’s too expensive.  The waitress comes and hands us menus, at which point we learn a single order of the battered British bounty is going to run £12.  After some debate about whether or not to eat, we blow the rest of the daily budget on the most expensive meal we’ve had.  £12 Fish and Chips, £9 leek and potato pie and two £2 waters, plus a 12.5% gratiuty added to the bill.   I figured it was okay though, as we were checking a “must do” off the list.
Except the food was terrible.   The potatos in the pie weren’t cooked enough, and the crust was only on the top.  That’s not a pie crust, that’s a crouton!  The fish and chips made me sad.  The fish was dry and the batter was dough-y.  There was no crispyness to the outside, nor was their any flavor.  In short, we paid a bunch of money for a meal from a chef that hadn’t heard of salt.  We were more satisfied with the £1 sandwiches in the grocery store. 
Disappointed, we headed home with the rain retuning as if to mock us. 
Today, we were walking around the North Lanes of Brighton, which are where the old fishing village has turned into colorful vintage stores, cafes and brick-a-brack shops.  Again, a big Fish and Chips sign pops up to taunt me.  I poked my head in and saw the menu filled with fish and chips, but also donor kebab, burgers and every other sort of fry-able food you could think of.  Dejected, we broadened the search for lunch to other foods, right before a sign for “The Grapevine – Budget Accomodations” appeared.  We popped our heads in and met the propietor Steve, who offered dorm beds at £10.  We’ll probably head there tomorrow.  I then asked him if the pub across the way had good food.  “Great pub, bad food.  What type of food are you looking for?” he replied. 
“Fish and Chips!” I say.  “We’ve been looking, but all I’ve found is stuff that looks crappy and really greasy.”
“Well, fish and chips is greasy,” he replies.  “Do you mind old people?” 
Turns out there’s a chain, called Harry Ramsden’s, that’s known for Fish and Chips . . . and WWII era clientelle.  Twenty minutes later, we find the place and walk in the restaurant.  Soon, we’re being  being led past a bevy of British senior citizens to a table by a hostess in black slacks and a white shirt.  Uh oh. 
This was a bit better priced, but £10 for the crispy critters wasn’t what we were hoping for, especially for lunch, but we were going to get good grub, and the fact that this place had ~8 different kinds of Fish and Chips on the menu made me think we were in the right spot.  Eventually, we ordered one “Classic” to share although opted for the baked beans, as I don’t really want to see what “mushy peas” looks like. 
Finally, when the Cod arrived, I felt home.  It was a single filet and quite clearly a whole 1/2 of a fish.  You could see it taper and it even curved up and off the plate towards the tail.  The breading was thin, flavorful and gave a satisfying “snap” when cracked with a fork.  The chips were about 3x the size of a traditional American french fry, yet cooked through thouroughly.  We split the meal, but there have been few times I’ve left a restaurant feeling so satisfied. 
We walked out the front door and took a left to go to Brighton Pier, and immediately noticed another sign.  “Take Away” it read. 
Turns out that ol’Harry had two restaurants side by side, serving the same food. 
First, the sit-down restaurant we ate at with the “Classic” at £10.
Next door, you could get “take-away” with the classic at £5.05. 

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