Fish and chips might seem straightforward, but in fact, there are infinite variations both here and in the U.K., where the dish originates.
The “chips” part of fish and chips provides a rare occasion to refer to french fries by their British name. There, chips are rather stubby and greasy by design; here, we prefer a more slender and less greasy french fry.
When it comes to the fish, the variety is of tremendous importance. The cod caught along the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic by European and American fleets has always been the preference of the British, while cooks up in Harlem, for historic reasons, have generally favored whiting, possibly as a substitute for the catfish overwhelmingly popular in the South.
Whatever fish it may be, it can be battered or dusted, with the former technique often involving beer and baking soda to make the crust lighter, crunchier, and more easily browned. The batter can be applied thick or thin, according to the preference of the cook. In the dusting technique, the recipe may feature a single coating of flour and cornmeal, or two dustings, with a dip in an egg wash in between. (The use of cornmeal may point to the early influence of Native Americans on these recipes.)
Fish and chips remains a sought-after dish among New Yorkers, and rare is the neighborhood where it isn’t available in some form or another. I went out to retry three of my favorite versions in quick succession, reflecting different perspectives on the dish, to see which is better.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Little in the city makes me as happy as sitting at the snaking lunch counter of Grand Central Oyster Bar, which began with four seats in 1913 and has grown to its present size over time with the original raw bar and its handful of stools still intact. The filet used in the fish and chips ($31.95) is pollock — a fine textured, very flaky fish found in the northern reaches of the Atlantic, and often used commercially in fish sticks and fast-food fish fillets.
Two filets were set before me with a large heap of fries. The filets were a perfect shade of light ochre and glistened in the spotlights which flood the lunch counter. The fish had been very lightly battered, so the crust was crunchy and oily without being sodden and overbearing, as battered fish and chips often is. But the flesh itself was damp and bland. The fries were nearly perfect, simple pillars of plain potato fried to tenderness without any coating. The accompanying tartar sauce was notable for its extreme thickness.
A Salt & Battery
The West Village counter-service spot A Salt & Battery was founded well over a decade ago, and makes some of the most celebrated British-style fish and chips in the city. It is a facsimile of a British “chippy,” with a high counter, a stainless steel shelf running along the circumference of the shop seating eight or so, green tiles with a fish motif, and behind the counter, three massive bubbling vats of fat. The selection of seafood runs to cod, haddock, whiting, sole, shrimp, and scallops, but the traditional cod is the favorite (small $8.95, large $14.95), and the shop sells 80 to 90 pounds of it per day. Feeling peckish I ordered the large size, along with chips ($6 extra).
My lunch came in a paper boat, with the chips underneath and a filet of cod so big it flopped across the top. Cod is a big fish, so the filets are often gigantic. The fish benefited from a battered coating of medium thickness — definitely thinner than found in pubs. It also had a slightly rubbery quality, and it was a challenge to keep the coarse-grained and slippery white fish inside its coat. Nevertheless, the fish sported a briny flavor, and the fries — excuse me, chips — were some of the best in the West Village, runty, not greasy, and tasting slightly earthy.
Devin’s Fish & Chips
Located in Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill, Devin’s is a small shop with a big kitchen and an aisle where customers order and then stand and eat their fish and chips along a dining shelf. It was founded in 2001 and suffered a catastrophic fire in 2014, after which it took three years to reopen. When it did, if offered sides of steamed vegetables as well as french fries with its fried fish in a nod to health concerns among its customers: Now green beans, butternut squash, and corn on the cob are popular choices.
Though several varieties of fish are available at an array of prices — all inexpensive — whiting is the fish usually served with the fish and chips ($9.50), which consists of four filets with an abundant serving of fries. Whiting is a relatively small fish, and the filets are served skin-on, sometimes with tail attached, which makes for a firmer chew than skinless filets. The chips themselves were browner than usual, and benefited from extra cooking.
All three places make an exemplary version of fish and chips, so it depends on the coating and fish species you prefer. Nevertheless, Devin’s makes the more interesting version — having the skin not only holds the filets together, it also adds flavor and texture to the dish. Also, the breading is of less importance at Devin’s, a mere supporting player in a tour-de-force of a dish that I return to eat again and again.