My mate Patrick is off to Rwanda. Off as in off. With a rucksack full of chloroquine and naked intent, he’s gone to seek his fortune where the streets are paved with mud. A bit like Cecil Rhodes, but with fewer scruples. Most of my peers plopped from university into the professions like upended jellies. Patrick will be the hero of his own life, and I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing him well.
Six of us took him to The Fish Club, to upload him with dew-eyed memories of fish, chips and chums in Ubwongereza, which means ‘England’ in Kinyarwanda and which is not a word you’re likely to see again.
As you don’t need me to point out, The Fish Club’s problem is fish. Or rather, the lack of them. My dad, who lives abroad, orders cod and chips whenever he sees them. It reminds him of his childhood, I think, when it was cheaply, blamelessly ubiquitous. In one of the saddest about-faces of modern times, it’s now tainted, fraught with ecological dilemma. In his lifetime, 95 percent of the cod has been hoovered out the north Atlantic, and 70 percent of edible fish from the world’s oceans. Unchecked, my generation will finish off the rest. So a baby born in 2050 might never taste a seared slab of bluefin, or skate tendrils fanning in black butter, or wild, silvered bass steamed softly with lime leaves.
No doubt there’ll be many consequences of this rape and furrow in the seas, but among the saddest will be the death of the British chippy. People carp at Nobu from their well-meaning perch, but their argument flounders. Nobu will only ever form a tiny morsel of this country’s eating, while there’s a chip shop in every town. Fish and chips has been a touchingly democratic dish, loved and tweaked throughout the Kingdom (cod in the south, haddock in the north, vinegar on yours, salt and sauce on mine). We took to it more recently than roast beef, but it’s an inescapable part of who we are. And yet the chippy batters its way to oblivion.
The Fish Club claims to bring fish and chips ‘into the 21st century’. That means it uses coley. Anyone with eyes or a tongue can tell the difference between cod and coley: cod is as white as Hollywood dentistry and tastes of fleshy pearl: coley’s a deathly grey, like eating mulch and hair-shirted virtue.
The restaurant is on St. John’s Hill, that cold strip of Clapham hinterland where almost everyone I know has their starter-flat. There’s an institutionally medicinal feel to the place, the pallid blue of boarding-school sanatorium. The Fish Club isn’t sure whether it’s a take-away or a restaurant, so seats are uncomfortable and tables are shared, and a heavy funk of old oil lingers through the shop, like grandad’s Christmas fart.
The keystone, the fish and chips, is good. That coley is fresh, but the oil was slightly too cold, and the batter clings to the fish like an entrant in a wet T-shirt competition. Half the chips are idiotically spiced with cayenne, but the rest are hot and crisp. We also share a dozen or so rock oysters. They’re damp and milky at this time of the year, lacking the thwack of osmazome. A serried puck of prawns is excellent, green and Nordic with dill, and lovely on hot toast. Some shell-ons are juicy, several of them hens with roe-speckled bellies.
Perfectly-cooked bream is slathered in an oversweet chilli sauce. There’s also some lacklustre salads which we barely touch, some abysmal, grease-sodden roast veg, and a horrendous steak pie, with an interior as congealed and tepid as fresh snot. (We ordered it because one of our number had claimed he didn’t like fish. Don’t judge a man by his friends.) For puddings, a benchmark crème brûlée, a dessicated slab of Bakewell, and some decent bought-in ice cream.
I like the Fish Club. I’d be a demi-regular, I think, if I lived locally. You could eat decently for a tenner here (although we paid a lot more, over-ordering as ever). The staff are knowledgeable, chatty and warm. They’ve priced the plonk well, and it’s a sound match for the food. It was an ideal spot, really, for us to wave our white hankies at our dear departing friend. And now he’s off to eat tilapia, and – though it sounds corny – maize.
The Fish Club, 189 St John’s Hill, London SW11
Tel.: +44 (0)20 7978 7115
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Fish, chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce for two costs £18.40.