My quest for the 10 top fish and chip shops in London was initially guided by a host of objective factors: Origin, handling, freshness and shape of the fillets. Cleanliness and temperature of frying fat. Composition and consistency of batter. Cooking time. Draining time.
But as my frustration grew, with even London’s most famous chippies proving themselves more adept at cutting corners than potatoes, my focus shifted from objective considerations to more emotional ones. Forget state-of-the-art oil filtration machines. I sought only fish and chips with a taste, texture and aroma so evocative I’d be transported back in time to family road trips along the North Yorkshire coast. For a kid who grew up in New York this was asking a lot. The closest my family ever got to the Yorkshire coast was Brighton. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
I nevertheless reconnected with the Yorkshire summers of my imagined past on the grounds of an Islington council estate. Fish Central, at King Square Estate, near the northern edge of Clerkenwell, serves the best fish and chips in London. It’s a 10-minute walk from Old Street Station – five minutes if you’ve had its fish before.
Forget regional styles, personal preferences or the look, location, logo or lore of the chippy under consideration. In London one can’t be that fussy, sadly. I limited my search to a single fish, cod, and a pair of benchmarks:
Fish too hot to eat straight away but too good not to.
Fish as delectable detached from its batter as is the batter detached from its fish.
Both criteria were repeatedly met at Fish Central, opened as a fish and chip shop by George Digby, a Greek-Cypriot, in 1968.
As the area around Central Street gentrified Fish Central followed. It’s now a nice fish restaurant where you can enjoy the best fish (£7.95) and chips (£1.95) in London with such modern comforts as chair, table, stainless steel cutlery and Australian Semillon Chardonnay. They take reservations.
An open question
I prefer the discomforts of the spartan takeaway shop fronting the kitchen, not to save myself £2.60 (a takeaway cod and chips is £7.30) and not because, much as everyone knows, fish and chips taste better when consumed on your feet, with your fingers. (Here the wooden chip forks are mostly for show. Few bother with them.) I like seeing my fillet first naked, then battered. I feel better following that fillet with my eyes as it’s lowered into and lifted from the hot oil. I get a special kick watching, if not George, then Hassan, his sideman, building a cone from multiple layers of paper and then filling it with golden goodness.
More than anything I take special delight hearing the question, “Open?”, meaning, would you like me to serve it to you open so that the dizzying vapours can penetrate your pores and you can start in when our fish, our chips and your expectations are at their hottest points?
The two-minute fish story
After one too many dreary London encounters with dried-out fish I began refusing anything on view in the display cabinets, withering under the heat lamps. (You should do the same.) I insisted that my cod be freshly fried. (Ditto.) This request elicited a range of responses, from admiration to grudging acceptance to the proverbial two-minute plea: That fish is fresh. It’s only been there for two minutes. When you hear “two minutes” you know you’re in trouble: If the server indicates one minute, or even four minutes, that could be credible. But two minutes? I’ve known hours shorter than that.
The first time I stepped up to Fish Central’s takeaway counter and demanded a freshly fried fillet I heard no sob story. Not a word. I got only a look from George as if to say: Are you kidding? Do you even see a single fillet in the cabinet? Do you think we’d serve anything that wasn’t freshly fried?
It’s now a little game we play. I ask for fresh. He gives me the look. Everyone is happy.
I had less success teasing George about his name. “What kind of Greek-Cypriot name is Digby?” Again no story. Just a glare and not one I care to see again. Game over.
The fish itself doesn’t fry. It steams.
When the cooked batter coats a fresh fillet in an even single layer without folds, puffs, big bubbles or spattered bits, much like the crunchy one clinging to Fish Central’s wonderfully plump Icelandic cod fillets, the fish effectively steams under its protective sleeve. When the frying time and temperature are right this indirect steaming favours the white meat of cod as much as direct steaming favours the white meat of lobster. The effect is one of the glories of fish and chips: diagonally sectioned flakes of cod glistening with moisture and joy.
The chip shake-n-salt
The chips Fish Central peels and cuts itself from Maris Pipers are good and sometimes very good. A surface sheen outlined by bronze highlights seals in the potato fluffiness. With each bite you feel the geometric shape formed by the crisp edges and corners.
Hassan brilliantly executes the chip shake-n-salt, eliminating worries about uneven distribution of salt. He holds the paper cone for you with two hands and tosses the chips like a salad, shifting them around from top to bottom and bottom to top, as you sprinkle salt over them.
Could a Yorkshire lad learn to love Fish Central’s fish and chips? With groundnut oil rather than beef dripping as the frying fat I suspect not. Nor can I be sure Fish Central would impress a Norfolk native or a lost Lancastrian. But for a local kid from EC1, or, in my instance, 10025, these are the best fish and chips in London.
Fish Central, 155-159 Central Street, London EC1V 8AP (map) – 020 7253 4970