Friday night, for some, is fish and chip night. Yum and yum night. I grew up by the beach in Swanage, Dorset. With five competing fish and chip shops, we were spoilt. We didn’t hoof it for tea every Friday; that would imply some semblance of routine or tradition, things my family and I seem averse to. But I remember having it every now and again.
When I got the news it was fish and chips for dinner I would be chuffed as a button. Things were different in the late ’80s and ’90s. I remember being able to get a ‘pea fritter’. I don’t think they exist anymore. Lost in obscurity, along with scrunchies and waistcoats over massive T-shirts. Each portion would get wrapped in old newspaper. You’d have your supper smothered in salt, vinegar and segments of lies.
When I see the likes of Gordon Ramsay ‘reinventing a classic’ fish and chips to be eaten in a restaurant I feel a sneer cooking up. My upbringing means I’m an ingrained snob. I don’t believe fish and chips can ever be as tasty in a restaurant (even one with Michelin planets) than it is from a shop, by the actual sea. Saying that, I’m keen to be proven wrong.
Beside the seaside Camden is not. I met a friend Amy there to grab some tea before our gigs. She steered us to a lovely pub, just off the high street: The Spread Eagle.
On first appearances it’s your standard London, gentrified, former old-man pub. Now full of beards and boardgames. Here though, there are a few charming twists. It’s unpretentious, it still has old men and its staff are exceptionally lovely. Personable, knowledgeable and interesting. My favourite.
There’s a bar snack menu, from which I ordered a pair of ‘Parmesan cheese straws’ to munch while we chose our mains. For £3.50 I was hoping they were pretty special. They were very special. About a foot long, they were beautiful, light sabres of crisp, fresh, aerated and crumbling pastry. Rolled in and run through with a powerful cheese. Dainty but loaded, like Cheryl Cole.
The menu was packed with sturdy-sounding stalwarts like hot pots and supremes. It sported a brilliant choice of fish, vegetarian and vegan options. I would have been intrigued even to try the ‘kale and almond’ side dish. But we kept it simple. Despite being as far from open water as I’m ever comfortable getting, we both went for fish and chips. Or to be precise, ‘Ale battered haddock, triple cooked chips, mushy peas, tartar sauce.’
It was £13, which even by posh pub standards is pretty steep. When it arrived it took our breaths away. It was spectacularly massive. The giant fish sat atop a shovel-load of chips. They made the tiddly pot of mushy peas and tartar sauce look like they were in the distance. I wrung the hefty wedge of lemon out over the meal: it smelled like contentment. Is there a better smell, when you’re hungry, than freshly citrused fried fish? Ahh. My heart flutters just remembering it.
The fish was astounding. The batter was crisp and crunchy. It had that incredible combination of lightness and firmness. It held and partnered the flaking, instant-dissolving mega-haddock like Johnny to its Baby.
The ‘triple cooked chips’ were similarly sexy. Chunky but crackling-edged, soaking in other flavours. They dissolved on impact, without ever losing their crunch. Hoovered together with the fish it was so satisfying, you could almost taste it going straight to your soul. The tartar sauce was a charming addition. Homemade with notable and potent chunks of caper and gherkin in there, it aided the lemon and vinegar in helping to slice through the density of the rest of it.
The only let-down was the mushy peas. It was as if someone had cooked a few peas, drained them then pressed a blender stick down on them. A tin of perfect mushy peas is 19p in Aldi. So, when that’s the part of a £13 feast-out which is the let-down, you feel baffled. It was of little consequence though, a small battle lost in a much larger war that was won.
Perhaps it is possible to have fish and chips be as beautiful by the tube as they are by the sea, almost. The fish, yes, I officially change my tune. There’s always danger from chip shops that it’ll be soggy, leaden batter and bony fish. This was divine. The chips, I’m less convinced by. They still didn’t quite have that commanding solidity they might have done near some sand.
It was so delicious that I am at least half-swayed.
The Spread Eagle, 141 Albert St, London, NW1 7NB
Tel: 0207 267 1410
Opening Hours: Mon-Thu 11am-1pm, Fri & Sat 11am-midnight, Sun midday-10.30pm
Accessibility: Wheelchair access to the main bar but the walkways are quite narrow and there’s no lift to the upper floors, nor is there an accessible toilet.