A Tale of Two Chippies

“They were the best of chips, they were the worst of chips, it was the taste of vinegar, it was the taste of tartare, it was the epoch of disbelief at the cost, it was the epoch of incredulity at the taste, it was the seafront of Brighton, it was the hilltops of Yorkshire, it was the spring of 2017, it was the winter of 2016.”

~ Charles Dickens, abandoned first draft of “A Tale of Two Cities”. Probably.

I love fish and chips. You might think that you love your children but it’s not really the same thing. I love fish and chips, with mushy peas and crusty bread, served to you on a plate so big that that you once spent 48 hours being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure by Greater Manchester Police because they thought you’d stolen one of the radio telescope dishes from Jodrell Bank. It’s the only way to eat fish and chips.

Harry Ramsden’s, Brighton, 19th December 2016

It was a dark and stormy night in deep midwinter when I first crossed the threshold of Harry Ramsden’s in Brighton.

I mean when you think about it nights generally are dark (in Brighton, don’t wise off about Scandinavia). And actually it wasn’t stormy, it was rather unseasonably mild. It just doesn’t make for a dramatic opening. I actually think it was the unseasonable mildness that made me throw caution to the stiff breeze coming off the channel and finally put off putting off visiting Harry Ramsden’s.

Anyone who knows Brighton knows about Buddies. For a fish and chips aficionado like me, the news that civilisation had evolved to the point where we had a 24/7 chip shop – right on the seafront no less – was nothing less than a revelation. Unfortunately the reality was something less than the sum of the ideas in my mind. It’s fine, it’s just – perfunctory is the word I would use, I guess. I think it was the fear of a second such disappointment that put me off entering the world famous Harry Ramsden’s for the three or so years I’ve been working in Brighton.

And unfortunately I was so, so right (I’m used to that though, it’s fine).

This is how the menu describes the Ramsden’s offering – sounds pretty promising. I would have to say that while I can’t be 100% sure I thought it was slightly more expensive than this. Everything in Brighton is ridiculously expensive, especially around the seafront area where everyone tries to rip off visiting rubes. But for top notch fish and chips, I didn’t think the price looked unreasonable.

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You can imagine what that would look like to the point of being able to taste it. Thick, golden chips with a delightful outer crunch and a bright, fluffy, almost-not-there centre. Fresh, succulent white fish that flaked at the touch and melted on the tongue. Zingy lemon and mushy peas that squelched with flavour and oozed with vitamins.

What I was actually served was best described as “Michael Gove’s libido on a plate”.

If the chips were cooked twice, then I estimate that the first time was around the turn of the millennium and they’d been kept fresh with a light dusting every so often. They were the chip equivalent of a teabag that’s been used so many times that in the end you’re just rinsing some papier-mâché in your cup. And also, like my first impressions, they were somewhat lukewarm.

The fish reminded me of Croydon; grey, tasteless and a little bit too much like something seen in the background of a zombie film.

And oh, the bread and butter. A single small piece of supermarket cheap white sliced, partially cut and partially torn with a lazy diagonal. The butter, which showed no sign of melting in the thirty minutes I was there, is for all I know still there, unmelted. They should try building the sea defences from it.

As for the establishment itself, it was the sort of place that Martin Parr would take photos in.

The Brook at Troway, Sheffield, 12th January 2017

Followers of the North Derbyshire/South Yorkshire food scene will know The Brook at Troway, but probably under a different name. Of old it was called the Black-a-Moor and most recently The Inn at Troway. As of the end of 2016, it’s under new ownership.

In its most recent incarnation prior to the latest change it was a something of a favourite of my daughter’s and we were keen to test out the fish and chips. As The Inn at Troway they were a permanent fixture on the menu. I remember with misty-eyed nostalgia the one time I ordered large fish and chips. “How large can it be?” I thought, as four waiting staff carried it in, one at each corner of the plate. I did not finish it. It was big in the way that the Atlantic Ocean is big.

Just before Christmas we visited for the first time as The Brook at Troway. We ordered the fish and chips and the first change we noticed was that the presentation had changed. GONE were the annoying little metal pails that the chips used to be served in. Now the chips, which were fewer but much larger, were stacked in a pleasing little arrangement with the fish arranged up against them. Alas! We were so excited by them and such was our haste that we even forgot to procure photographic evidence.

That meant we had to make a second visit (how we suffer for our art, readers) and we visited last week. It was quiet so we didn’t need to book. The interior has had a facelift, not a vast remodelling or anything, just a freshening up. The main thing is that the conservatory still commands beautiful views across the South Yorkshire countryside. If you visit, ask for a seat there rather than in the main pub area.

We were seated, ordered drinks, and picked up the menus in what we thought was the formality of checking fish and chips were still on the menu. THEY WERE NOT.

We raised this with our waiter. He disappeared into the kitchen and came back seconds later saying, if you want fish and chips we can make them for you. And they were every bit as good as we remembered from our first visit.

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The plates are large which may make the portions look small, but rest assured there is plenty of food. The chips were just as I like them: everso slightly crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and a beautiful golden colour that would make Donald Trump want to decorate his apartment with them.

The fish was fresh with a beautiful delicate taste and texture. Unlike the fish at Ramsden’s, which was so greasy trying to get it on your fork was like trying to juggle soap in the shower, it was moist but certainly not greasy. The peas were full of flavour and the tartare sauce tangy and rich.

In summary

At Ramsden’s you’re paying for the name, the location, and the fact that everything in BN2 is overpriced. It’s a shame, because if you were paying for the food you’d probably have change from a couple of quid. There was no difference between the fare at Ramsden’s and what you would get at any city centre chippy or high street greasy spoon anywhere else. There’s literally nothing to recommend it.

On the other hand, we enjoyed both visits to The Brook and will definitely be going again. The staff are friendly and attentive, the location is spectacular and the food is well worth the money.

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