[Photographs: Joe Roy]
Today is Ash Wednesday, officially making it that time of year again: Lenten fish fry season. My love for finned creatures of the battered or breaded variety is no great secret, but the passing of a year has made me an older, wiser, and more inclusive aficionado. You see, my preference for thin, crispy, and bountiful piles of small fried fish fillets has been to the exclusion of the genre’s biggest elephant in the room: fish & chips.
In the past, I’ve avoided the dish like the plague. For a taste of my harbored distain, see this inflammatory, unused statement from last year’s Lenten post: “Unsalted, cheap, flavorless cod isn’t sufficiently dried before being drowned in a thick, seasoning-less batter. This means tasteless, watery fish and an excessive, poorly applied exterior that peels off like a wet Band-Aid.” Poor technique certainly damns many a plate of fish and chips, but forsaking the masses because of the sins of a few isn’t the answer. I’m looking to convert hearts, not create splintered fried fish factions. Which is why I’ll be giving extra attention in the next few weeks to places that feature solid fish and chips. You could say that I’m a deep fried fisher of men.
To that end, first up is Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport. The low profile, white-washed and black-lettered exterior is an anglophile’s dream. It gets even better when you walk into the sun-soaked interior, soothing smells wafting through the timeless wood paneled dining room and inviting smiles coming from within the countered kitchen.
In line with tradition, Fish and Chips ($12.00) is a Fridays-only special, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more nuanced take on the dish in Chicago. The hearty, pink-hued Lake Superior whitefish is encased in a crackly beer batter that yields willingly to the fork, yet sticks to the fish through thick and thin. Caper-studded preserved Meyer lemon tartar sauce is tart and rich, sour and just a little bit sweet, and makes the perfect dunk for the fish. If I had one complaint, it’s that the fish itself could use a little pre-battering seasoning. The flaky, meaty texture is certainly present, but the fish flavor is obscured by the strong surrounding flavors.
No such complaints for the Chips, though: the large-diced, deep fried cubes are at once crunchy and creamy, and I’ve been dreaming about their egg pairing potential since I left. The Deluxe Gravy Chips ($5.00), on the other hand, may be gilding the lily. The generous dousing of brown gravy, crispy skirt steak, and aged cheddar cheese has poutine preparation written all over it, but the chips are so good on their own right, that I’ll be enjoying them all by their lonesome next time.
That being said, I may have found the proper pair to the chips after all in the Scotch Egg ($4.00). The soft-boiled, sausage swaddled orb has a rich, liquid gold center that is nicely contrasted by its crunchy, porky shell.
However, sharing these striking beauties is not recommended for any but the most gracious of dinner guests, lest the table starts divvying up bites with a self-serving precision not suited to Pleasant House’s comforting confines. No comment on whether I speak from personal experience.