There’s a new kid in town in the East London fish and chip market. Everyone is raving about Salt & Vinegar, so my sources tell me. So new it doesn’t yet have a website but does have a fan page on Facebook. Sutton & Sons have been the market leaders in this area for a long while, having opened their doors in 1998, during which 18 years competition has not hit the heights they established. In view of the plaudits for the new boys, how will the acknowledged masters of Stoke Newington fish & chips respond?
Two things immediately in Sutton & Sons’ favour are that they haven’t polluted their shops by offering kebabs, fried chicken or pizzas, but they clearly do take a pride in the freshness of their fish. Witness a statement from their website:
We support sustainable fishing, and all of our produce is responsibly sourced. Our very own Sutton and Sons Fishmongers is located across the road from our Stoke Newington shop, which means our fish couldn’t be fresher.
Well, I’ll assume they don’t fish in the oceans of Stoke Newington, but I get the point. The fish is on display in the counter, much as Chop Bloc and other prime steakhouses proudly display their cuts of meat. The choice is deep fried in batter or charcoal grilled, the latter apparently costing approximately £1.50 more than the former, like for like, for no obvious reason. An option they may wish to pursue in future to appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish punters alike is fish coated in matzo meal, once eaten at an excellent fish and chip shop on Mill Hill Broadway, many years ago. They also do pies, but the real business and attraction is prime sustainable fish – which means no skate and presumably cod and haddock from farmed sources.
As we entered the restaurant the big surprise was that Sutton & Sons was empty – not a single customer in sight! I’m assured that there are usually queues to sit in the cramped surroundings, so it was no surprise when tables began to fill. Even so, maybe the competition is taking a toll on the passing trade?
While we had the place to ourselves, this was a prime opportunity to look around and take in the ambience. No doubt about it, S&S has a great atmosphere for a chippie, even if the hard wooden bench seats are unforgiving on the posterior. This was amplified with retro 70s style by the background music, Wild Cherry’s classic funk track Play That Funky Music, White Boy. For a certain generation, plus the sadly deluded youth now looking back fondly on 70s music, this certainly strikes a chord or two.
Our waitress was attentive, efficient and pleasant throughout, helped by the relatively quiet Wednesday night. Better than that, she spoke no more than she needed to while getting the job done, which is as my good friend Roy used to say about barbers: they should speak when spoken to but otherwise stay quiet. A tad harsh but there’s no doubt in my book that waiting staff trying to be entertainers does not improve service.
Since you go to Suttons for the fish, that was where we started: one haddock in batter, one without, one salad and one portion of Lancashire caviar (mushy peas, which at one time were like gold dust in London – as a good northern lad, I credit myself with having insisted chip shops serve this fine delicacy!) Sure enough, these were excellent home-made specimens, beautifully mushed and just as I remember from my boyhood.
Credit too for the homemade tartar sauce provided as an addition to the well-stocked condiment tray on each table. Also for the fact that they included proper brewed Sarson’s malt vinegar rather than the unforgivable “non-brewed condiment” found in most chip shops, and considered by me and many other lovers of authentic fish and chips to be a total abomination. Has to be malt vinegar, and lots of it – substitutes not permitted!
No doubt about it, my beer-battered fish looked absolutely perfect. Contrary to the modern trend Suttons choose not to offer different sizes, though this portion would probably be in the medium-large category in most fish & chip shops. It was crisp, the batter cooked through, of excellent quality and perfect in every way. No complaints of any description from me about the fish.
However, I wish the chips, hand-cut as they are declared to be, had been fried a minute or two longer at smoking hot temperatures to achieve a golden, crispy exterior and a soft and fluffy interior. Very anaemic in colour, they were not soggy nor in any other way deficient, but just not as crisp as twice-cooked chips should be served. Alas, this is the weakness of very many chip shops, but to fall so narrowly short is just a crying shame. Star of the show though, apart from the fish, goes to Mrs Sutton’s homemade pickles. I couldn’t resist the lure of balsamic shallots, and very good they were too – to the extent that I will make my own very soon!
All told, this was a good evening marred only slightly by underdone chips. Including drinks the bill came to £47 something – a trifle steep considering we only ate one course, but worth it. No question that Suttons provides a high-class product, but no doubt that a trip to Salt & Vinegar will be required for comparison.