Who would have thought that this population
of marathon-running, fat-avoiding, fit folk would be flocking
to an establishment like Park Slope’s The Chip Shop, where fried
food rules and health consciousness is out the window?
The half a block-long line of eager diners waiting to get into the restaurant last Thursday night was a pretty good indicator that large numbers of diners are coming back to fried food - many of them discovering English cooking for the first time.
In spite of the negative press that has always surrounded British food, (most of it acquired quite honestly), the fact remains that English cuisine, and the aura that surrounds it, have a charm all their own.
Think tiny thatched pub on the side of a winding English road. Think Welsh rarebit or shepherd’s pie with a mug of bitters. Think bangers and mash with steaming hot onion gravy. The accents, the soccer talk, the charming ancestral china. I didn’t have to stretch my imagination too far, as it happened, because Chip Shop owner Chris Sell (think George Harrison crossed with Paul McCartney) sat down at our table and he and my husband, Ken, who is also English, immediately got into reminiscing about the homeland’s fish ’n’ chips, bangers and mash and chip butty.
Ken was explaining his mother’s version of mushy pea fritter to us.
"We called it ’pease porridge’ back then. Mum used to make it on a Sunday night - a regular pie crust with mushed up peas inside." Just then a mushy pea fritter was placed in front of me - a round fritter, 2-inches in diameter, filled with mashed peas, of course.
"Here’s my mother’s version," Chris beamed. It was crisp and hot and mushy inside. My overall verdict: Well, uh - I probably wouldn’t order it again.
"Do you get many requests for this?" I asked Chris delicately (because anyone living in Brooklyn knows better than to insult someone else’s mother).
"Oh yes," he answered, smiling broadly, "there are a lot of young English kids in the neighborhood who come here regularly and order that every time. We had one fellow who came by for an order of mushy pea fritters every day for 10 days! I guess he was homesick."
We moved on to the more widely known fare next - fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie. Having lived in New Zealand as a child, I, too, had some distinct and pleasant English food memories I wanted to jog. How fondly I recall walking down the streets of Wellington eating fish and chips doused in malt vinegar from a newspaper cone after a day at the baths.
Since then, I’ve become so wary of tasteless, over-fried American food, it rarely occurs to me to order anything fried in a restaurant. But my fish and chips arrived and my childhood memory was put to the test.
A plate positively heaped with chips topped by a huge fillet of scrod, fried to golden perfection, was placed in front of us. (You have the choice between cod and rock salmon. I’m told the rock salmon tastes a lot fishier than the cod.) The batter was light but substantial enough to keep the fish moist during frying. The fish was firm but tender. The coming together of the starchy, hot potatoes, the flaky, crisp fish, the vinegar and salt was all just as I remembered it. It got a thumbs up from Ken, too.
As luck would have it, I was not tempted to overeat on the bangers and mash (mashed potatoes and English sausages). While Chris’ mashed potatoes were just the right consistency - not too smooth or watery, not too stiff or lumpy - the soft, fatty nature of English sausages (they’re beige, too!) has never appealed to me. Still, The Chip Shop uses a brand called Myers of Keswick, which according to both Ken and Chris, makes a very authentic-tasting banger.
The shepherd’s pie (a layer of meat, vegetables or seafood topped with mashed potatoes), which comes in four varieties - the standard meat, vegetable, wild mushroom and Cornish seafood - arrived piping hot in oval chafing dishes. My favorite was the meat (ground beef cooked with a little onion, parsley and carrots), partly because what’s good about English food is the simplicity of the standard dishes when prepared well.
Again, the flavors weren’t remarkable or unusual, but the dish was good comfort food at its best, down-home meat and potatoes.
We hardly felt up to dessert after our own meat-and-potato fest but forged ahead nonetheless. The puddings, as the British call their desserts, were all very standard English fare - fruit crumbles (apple and blackberry, and rhubarb, both served with custard), a trifle (mainly fruit and cake, no Jell-O), treacle pudding (a tad dry), and a deep-fried Mars bar that Chris assured me was a Scottish specialty, served regularly in pubs. I’m afraid I feel some sort of warning about artery clogging needs to precede such decadence, so consider yourselves warned.
The Chip Shop is a delightfully lively spot for diners of all ages. It’s one large room, painted a sunny yellow, seating about 30 and opens up onto Fifth Avenue, with a carryout window on Sixth Street.
The walls are decked out in British memorabilia - the British flag, posters of the Beatles, the Cunard Lines, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols and a copy of John Lennon’s birth certificate. There’s a shelf going ’round the top of the ceiling that holds more memorabilia - commemorative mugs, magazine articles about English royalty and teacups.
This is unpretentious dining at its best, made all the more fun by highlighting a cuisine that’s always gotten a bum rap.
As Chris says, "It’s honest food at an honest price." Jolly good, too!
The Chip Shop, 383 Fifth Ave. at Sixth Street in Park Slope, is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Cash only. Entrees: $7-$11. For more information, call (718) 832-7701. www.chipshopnyc.com