(I did not make any of this. My only effort was simply slicing a lemon in half, everything else I thank Fish Central for delivering to me.)
It was around this time last year that I first walked past Fish Central. Only a ten-minute walk from where I’ve lived for the last eight years, I had heard about it in passing but never found it before. It's in an unassuming looking building on the edge of a square that separates two housing estates. Its windows are littered with lurid stickers that show off awards from years gone by and a posters pressed to them that read ‘we run karaoke on Friday night now’ - from first sight I fell in love.
I only walked past it that day because I was freelancing at an agency across the street. It was somewhere I had interned years before, that was now paying me significantly more (than the nothing they had in the past) to do essentially the exact same work. The office was full of people who I had known for a long time but who no longer really recognised me. Unanchored to a desk or a job - planning what to eat for lunch was the one thing that I could always count on.
On the day my invoice was paid I took my lunch break across the road in Fish Central. Its white tablecloths and carnation dressed tables were everything I wanted. Walking in, it smelt like a wave. More accurately the white foam of a wave, like a whisk has churned all of its water offering up just the pure champagne scent of the sea. The menu described the flesh of each fish, something that felt like it democratised each dish. The chefs are from Cyprus and they banter in the kitchen like brothers. From where I was sitting I could see prawn brains bursting on the barbecue shelves of the grill and bottles of olive oil in varying shades of verdant green. There is nothing more I could have wanted in a restaurant.
It was a busy lunch service and I was the youngest patron by about fifty years. I listened to conversations about retirement, overheard the owner enquire about their holidays, and ask for their children by name. On the table next to me, I heard that they have been coming here since it opened. I watched them order sea bass with a pale lemon parsley butter that they spoon over soft potatoes.
I listened close as they say ‘oh this is good’ with each forkful. A builder with concrete crusted boots walked in and ordered a plate fish and chips. As soon as he sits down the waiter immediately brings him over brown sauce - he’s been here before too. Someone knowing how you like something and giving it to you without asking is such an intimate act. It acknowledges that they understand your wants and how you need things to be done.
As I read the menu ready to order, I decide on fish and chips too. A quintessential classic, there’s nothing not to love. I ordered deep-fried haddock, chips and a Greek salad from the menu alongside a small glass of white wine and wedges of lemon. In between the sound of Smooth FM that was on the radio and the bites of batter, flakes of fish and sips of cold unnamed house white wine, I forget where I was - the sign of something sublime.
In London, there are lots of places that try to give you this sense of escapism. Restaurants that want to offer you an atmosphere of something served by the sea, in those places I eat and leave but here I felt like I had found something. I came back a week later and without having to say the owner asked ‘you want it with lemon and a Greek salad?’ and with something as simple as remembering my order I find somewhere far from the sea that still feels like home.
How to eat Fish & Chips (like an Australian)
The best way to explain the difference between English and Australian cookery and the aspect of it that I miss the most living here can be seen in how we eat our fish and chips. Australia’s first fish and chip shop opened in 1879 by Athanasias Comino, a Greek migrant who opened his on Oxford Street in my hometown of Sydney. This shaped the way that our island adopted something that seems so English and made it our own. There are no mushy peas or malt vinegar on our fish and chips but there is always a side of Greek salad and fat yellow wedges of lemon.
To really eat it properly it’s best if you still have saltwater from a swim lingering on your lips - but you can recreate this feeling anywhere.
Get fish and chips from your favourite place. Turn your oven up as high as it can go. Unwrap and place the chips on one tray and the fish in the other. Let them crisp up for 10 minutes until they’re even more golden. If you can’t get a Greek salad from the same place - make your own while the fish and chips crisp. The important factors are cucumber, tomatoes, feta, and good black olives and olive oil. Spritz everything (fish, chips, and salad) with lemon and sprinkle everything with salt.