It's a sad day for fried food when the advertising cards on the tables of one of Toronto's most reputable fish and chips joints extol the health benefits of the frying oil. I must know more, so I dig a little deeper and find a website. "Fry-On," it brags, "is a uniquely processed, nutritional, 100% vegetable corn and canola oil blend." Digesting the list of Fry-On's virtues, which apparently include anti-oxidants, no cholesterol, and zero trans fats "per serving," makes me wonder: what demented imbecile chooses their fish and chips based on the nutritional qualities of the bubbling cauldron of fat in which they're made?
Not this one. After searching high and low, we've come to one very important conclusion: frying in vegetable oil is, without doubt, the wrong way to make fish and chips. The best way is the old-fashioned way: with beef drippings. The problem is that chippies that use drippings are a dying breed. In fact, as far as I can tell, there remain but two who hew to tradition in Toronto: Penrose and Caz's. Everyone else has turned to the dark side, favouring vegetable shortening or composite oils, like Fry-On, that offer convenience to the restaurant and somewhat less guilt to the diner –- at the expense of flavour.
In order to identify Toronto's best fish and chips, Rachel and I visited nine of Toronto's best loved chippies. Our friends Jill and Rob, who also joined us on our donut quest and our excursion to Montreal, accompanied us to seven of them on one glorious day. The strategy was to divide one serving among four people -- we're not completely insane.
We were unanimous in our first choice: Penrose Fish & Chips. Their halibut and chips may not be flawless -- frankly, I think the fish tends towards a touch of greasiness sometimes -- but the batter is light and crispy, the fries have a crunchy exterior and tender interior, and the flavour of both is exceptional, rich and deep without being obtrusive. On our most recent visit to Penrose, I asked Dave Johnston, who now tends the fryers while his mother, Marion, deals with customers, how they produce Barbra Streisand's favourite fish and chips. It's no surprise to learn that they refuse to take shortcuts. That means not only using beef fat, it also means hand-cutting and par-frying their chips before crisping them up in a final bath of scorching hot fat. I only wish some of Toronto's finer restaurants approached their dishes with the same diligence with which the Johnstons approach a plate of fast food.
For me, at least, Caz's placed a close second. Like Penrose, they fry in beef fat. They also serve the biggest plate of fish and chips in the city. For those eager to eat responsibly, Caz's serves only wild caught fish. There are but three drawbacks: first, the fish was a little greasy; second, the calm of our meal was consistently breached by the loud argument the fry lady was having with a supplier; and, third, the decor screams fast food. In short: good food, bad environment.
If you do happen to be one of those people who insist on vegetable oil, there is hope for you yet. You can find a very good plate of fish and chips in Toronto (just know there are better). The two best places to enjoy vegetable oil-fried fish and chips are Reliable and Harbord, in that order. Both turn out crispy, delicious meals, but Reliable gets the nod for its exceptionally light batter. Reliable had better get it right, because it occupies a crowded chunk of fish and chips real estate, what with two other chippies plying their trade along the same strip of Queen Street East. It's enjoyed a renaissance of late thanks to the publicity showered upon it by an appearance on Restaurant Makeover. Not that you'll find any of the dishes Lynn Crawford developed on the menu -- the owner, George Hung, freely admits the move was a smartly conceived publicity stunt. The decor is stylish, however, though I have to admit to having a soft spot for Penrose, which looks like a fifties relic with its tiny booths, sea blue walls, and a pièce de résistance swordfish mounted on the north wall.
I hate to speak negatively of any restaurant, but there are some chippies that just don't cut the tartar sauce. Chippy's is a perennial favourite among some Toronto aficionados, and at its best it can be excellent. But that's rarely the case. For what it's worth, the problem isn't necessarily the food; the wretched oversized Chinese takeout containers contribute too. The food is piled high in a narrow box, and in order to seal it, the fish and chips must be crammed in so tight that they turn into a moist, greasy mess. In Chippy's defense, they are the only joint in town that makes legitimate mushy peas, and they offer a superb tartar sauce.
Steven Davey, the restaurant critic at Now Magazine, recently named Deep Blue the best chippy in town. Steven Davey is wrong. Deep Blue makes a solid halibut and chips, but their adventures in flavoured batter fail miserably. On a recent visit, Rachel and I vied for her halibut after we discovered how leaden and obscenely thick the Jamaican jerk batter is. The mushy peas, coyly described as 'hummus,' taste too powerfully of garlic, and the french fries were tough and chewy.
I have to admit to bitter disappointment upon discovering that the chippy of my youth, Woodgreen, makes horrifically bad food. To add insult to injury, I even had to endure the torture of knowing our meal wasn't going to meet expectations while it was being cooked. Rather than fizzing and springing to life at the addition of the haddock and potatoes, as hot oil should, Woodgreen's frying oil acknowledged the raw ingredients with the faintest sequence of listless bubbles. Sure enough, the fish was pallid and limp and everything swam in a puddle of grease. So much for sentimentality.
The only other truly awful experience was at British Style Fish & Chips, which offers a product so vile we couldn't finish a plate of it between the four of us. Puddles of grease aside, the french fries were perhaps the worst we've ever had. Please explain to me how fried potatoes can be so tough and chewy that jaws ache after eating them, because I can't figure it out.
Somethin's Fishy may be Toronto's newest fish and chip shop. Tucked into cozy quarters in the heart of the Kensington, this joint distinguishes itself with its fries -- thin shoestrings laced with spice -- and tasty condiments. Unfortunately both the fries and the fish suffer from cooking in oil that's too cold. Our meal here was greasy and went unfinished. My hunch, however, is that turning up the heat would make a world of difference, and raise this chippy to the level of Harbord or Reliable.
Torontonians are passionate about their fish and chips. I drew inspiration for this quest from Chowhound, which hosts no fewer than two boards with a combined total of almost two hundred comments from hogtowners eager to share their picks and pans. I know there are places I have yet to try, and I am certain I will. Just as long they don't try to sell me on the quality of their vegetable oil.