Sometimes, I get the urge for fish n' chips, and locally, the obvious option is Long John Silver's. I've been to the little faux-old-timey-looking shop on Harlem many times over the years, and generally I've been satisfied with the result.
Recently, the bar was set for fish n' chips at Wights in Ryde, Isle of Wight. Carolyn had the cod and I had plaice, also called "flatfish," that our server – a sturdy Wyf of Bath type who regularly addressed all customers as "My love" – described with a laugh as "triangular" (later I saw a picture of the fish that confirmed this rather strange description). The plaice was a bit more "fishy" and soft-textured than the cod, but both were outstanding, as much for the quality of the fish as for the frying, which also influenced Carolyn's judgment that the chips were "the best ever."
The chips and the fish had a lacy, delicate crust, leaving tuber and fish flesh moist and almost fluffy. The tartar sauce seemed homemade, as did the mushy peas, a very, very satisfying lunch. Like much of the food we've had on Isle of Wight, it was simple stuff, containing just a handful of high-quality ingredients, well prepared, almost humble but demanding attention; nothing fancy, just basic good tastes from fundamental foods shown to good advantage.
What Wights – and actually every fish n' chips place we visited in England – does that is less likely to be done at Long John Silver's is that they make all the fish to order: they don't start cooking it until you've ordered it. This means that, in some cases, you might wait a good long while for your fish to be ready. We waited upwards of 20 minutes for two fish cakes in Ventnor – but it was way worth the wait.
The advantage of frying fish and potatoes a la minute is that they are not only warm through and through (usually quite hot, actually) but surface texture of the fries and fish are PERFECT: crisp, moist, crunchy, really good…too good, actually, as I believe we probably consumed more calories of fried fish and potatoes in our two-week stay on Isle of Wight than was probably good for us.
Also on Isle of Wight, the potatoes are usually hand cut, with the skins on, and double-fried when your order is placed. The UK excels in potatoes. Potatoes are such a large part of the British diet that there's an abundance of high-quality spuds available in major grocery stores, small markets, and roadside stands.
I understand that American quick-service operations are not going to be able to cook everything in your order the moment you order it. If they did, the service would not be quick, and in England, service always seemed to take a little longer than it seemed like it should have. But there is no doubt: it is better to fry the fish and potatoes moments before they're set before the customer. The food is worth the wait because it's better that way, but that's different than the way we usually get our fish n' chips at quick service restaurants in Oak Park or most anywhere else in the States. Alas.
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