Finsbury Park doesn’t need more battered fried food
I have a confession to make. It’s a deeply unpopular, long-held opinion that will not endear me to many of you. It’ll be even more controversial than the time I disparaged chicken, dismissing it as a soulless meat fit only for children and invalids. I don’t like fish and chips. There, I said it. I actively dislike fish and chips.
Perhaps I just haven’t had *good* fish and chips in my several decades of life on this island, but the the floppy and tired chips are only slightly less repulsive to me than the oily and heavy batter of the stodgy and bland fish. If a bumbag-toting tourist lollying around the West End has any conception of what British food is like, then it’s this readymade stereotype wrapped in newspaper. Give me a good saveloy and some triple-cooked chips and I’m a far happier camper.
This shocking revelation brings us to Gilly’s Fry Bar, a sort of middle-class chippy in the midst of an identity/branding muddle. You can have chip butties, battered plaice and pollock too. But you can also have salmon crudo, battered shiitake and courgettes as well. Disposable chopsticks are present on every table alongside salt and vinegar with soy sauce accompanying many of the dishes.
It’s not as barmy as it first appears. Even if you discount the foreign origins of fish and chips, battered, deep-fried food is one of those odd commonalities that transcends borders, connected by the accidents and happenstances of history. Unfortunately, Gilly’s efforts are less fry-yay and more fry-nay.
First things first
Gilly’s salmon crudo arrived as a loosely packed patty, an unexpected form to say the least. It tasted little of the fish, with the sweet herbiness of cucumber and dill more prevalent instead. It wasn’t awful, just a little unbalanced and not especially satisfying.
The sea bass crudo was far better. Long, thin slices of firm fish were lightly zesty with a spicy warmth courtesy of chilli.
I approached the deep-fried plaice with trepidation. My disdain for its kind lurking in the back of my mind, but with a determination to keep an open mind towards new possibilities. It was all for nought, though. The tightly-crumbed exterior, more Captain Bird’s Eye breadcrumb than crisp and airy batter, was stodgy and dreary. The charmless fish was only edible when bathed in life-threatening quantities of salt and vinegar.
The shiitake and courgettes, and indeed all the other deep-fried dishes that I tried, used a very different batter from the plaice. Far crispier and more airy, it was a notable improvement even if it was still a bit too greasy. Don’t believe any of the fluff pieces elsewhere that attempt to equate this batter with the far lighter, almost feathery standards of Japanese tempura though – it’s still very much in the tradition of a British chippy.
Firm shiitake wasn’t bad, but it distinctive flavour was lost amidst the oily crunch of the batter. Courgettes were far better, with their buttery creaminess and light sweetness shining through.
Thick cut chips, sheaved from whole potato, still had the skin on in places. Although some will gasp at such a thing, a far bigger crime in my book is that the chips, while fluffy soft on the inside, managed to be rigid on the outside without actually being crisp. While far from bad, I personally prefer the delicate crunch of a good triple-cooked chip any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
At the centre of each English-style mini doughnut was a thin yet creamy dollop of custard. Although the small portion is arguably a little mean, it did ensure that neither the pillowy fried dough or the custard outstayed their welcome.
Going back for seconds
The bizarre thing about the halloumi and honey wasn’t the weak drizzle of bee puke, but the the mutant creature that the cheese had evolved into. Chewy cheese with a leathery skin of an exterior had all the appeal of an unwashed second-hand merkin. It was almost like a particularly bad version of the fish ‘cake’ patties you might find in a Japanese oden.
Far better, surprisingly, were the deep fried rings of pickled onion. Like a bag of Pickled Onion Monster Munch brought to life, the distinctive tartness of the supple and gently sweated onion rings shone through the reasonably airy and crisp batter.
The sausage was embarrassingly good – thick, meaty and herby with no filler taking up valuable space. Embarrassing because the superlative sausage showed up the continuing so-so quality of the surrounding batter.
Don’t make the mistake I made the first time around in ordering too much deep-fried food, but without enough raw or pickled greens to offset them. Unfortunately, the selection of said greens left much to be desired which is perhaps unsurprising. Little effort beyond chopping had gone into the radish and lettuce salad. A sliced pickle was somewhat better, although it wasn’t anywhere as refreshing, sharp, sour or tart as it needed to be given all the battered food that had preceded it.
The only good chocolate is a dark, bittersweet chocolate. I’ll make an exception for a Crème Egg though and for Gilly’s deep-fried Celebrations. When swaddled in the same batter as used for most of the other dishes here, the usually cheap and rancid chocolate was surprisingly pleasing in its oozy creaminess. In small doses, of course.
It takes chutzpah to open a restaurant dedicated to battered fried food in our current age of clean eating Instagram wellness nutribollocks. That credit only goes oh so far though when my cholesterol levels took such a battering at Gilly’s in return for meals that left me feeling bloated and weary, rather than satiated and elated. I remain a fish and chip sceptic.
Fry-nay, not Fry-yay.
What to order: Courgettes; Sausage; Pickled onion rings
What to skip: Plaice; Halloumi and honey
Name: Gilly’s Fry Bar
Address: 4A Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, London N4 3JP
Phone: 07909 977200
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 17.00-22.30.
Reservations? Not taken.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £35-40 approx.