It was late on a Friday afternoon, exhausted from an intense weeks work I plopped onto the couch. The phone rang. “Want to go out for fish and chips?” Yvonne asked.
Fish and chips is an English dish and the English aren’t known for their food, so why is it that when someone asks that question, you’re only too eager to go?
I wondered which little fishing village fish and chips originated from but contrary to this romantic notion, fish and chips were actually invented in the big city of London. That makes it the brainchild of a chef more than a creation of its surroundings.
As the story goes, fish was plentiful on the island nation and workingmen needed a quick and inexpensive meal to sustain them during a hard day of physical labour. A creation of necessity, this new fried meal was an instant hit and became the most popular dish throughout the entire country, not just for the working folk, but for everyone. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously called fish and chips “the good companions”. Who would disagree?
Fish and chips are a good, honest meal made from four key ingredients: fish, potatoes, flour and oil. Simple, right? Wrong! How many times have you had greasy, soggy fish and chips? Ok, now that I’ve made my point, let’s hear from someone who knows how to make the most glorious fish and chips.
“We’ve been making fish and chips for over 23 years, we should know what we’re doing,” laughs Diane Lee. Diane along with her husband, Brian Strain, own Joeys Seafood Restaurant on Ontario Street in St. Catharines. Together they’re insanely passionate about serving up lip-smacking, melt-in-your-mouth fish and chips and have built a huge cult following to support their self-proclaimed title of “best fish and chips in town”.
At Joeys, fish and chip dinners come in three different options: halibut, haddock and cod. Haddock it seems has a better price point, a milder flavour that’s not too fishy and is still firm and flaky; an important characteristic of great fried fish. Cod on the other hand is more of a traditional choice. It’s the favourite fish used in Eastern Canada, it’s a little heartier, denser, just as flaky but with a stronger taste that gives the dish a wonderfully unique Eastern character.
Halibut seems to be Niagara’s favourite fish for fish and chips. “It’s creamier more like a chicken texture, sweeter in flavour, ” explains Diane. Just like meat, halibut comes in various quality grades and Brian boasts “our halibut is top grade, we have no interest in buying anything else. It’s like a Triple-A steak. We buy the best and our customers don’t mind paying the little extra for it.” The Halibut dinner at Joeys runs $22 for a dinner that includes two large pieces of fish.
All of this boasting had me ordering the Halibut dinner. Sweet and succulent, flaky fish, enrobed in crispy batter – not too thick, not too thin, cooked throughout and – no oily residue on my fingers or plate. Even the chips were super crispy on the outside and soft on the inside – perfection!
Joeys diner is a comfortable throwback to a 1970’s diner complete with arborite tabletops, banquets running the length of the wall and practical décor. Lining the walls are photographs of Niagara’s most stunning water features from the Welland Canal to the Port Dalhousie docks. They really are something to look at so I walked the diner like a gallery admiring the photography of Eric Baloga, a long-time customer of Joeys.
The job of perfection at Joeys falls to the kitchen manager, Kim, who has the nasty job of managing the oil. Apparently fresh oil for frying is part of their secret and they always keep the fish in a dedicated fryer while the chips are cooked in another. “It needs to be fresh, it needs to be at the perfect temperature and the fish needs to be cooked for the perfect length of time,” says Diane who points to the large kitchen clock. “It has a second timer, that’s how precise we are.”
Working more like an army regiment than a casual kitchen Diane continues, “the fish fryer is the hottest in the kitchen and on a busy night, it’s really hard to keep the temperature constant”.
It was Friday night, the busiest night of the week and we did have to wait a few extra minutes for our fish, but better perfection than soggy fish with uncooked batter. “We just can’t cook any more fish than the temperature allows us to,” says Brian who goes on to explain that it’s like an assembly line that gets backed up with volume. Each piece of fish must cook for the exact amount of time and that’s why Kim constantly has her eye on the second hand of the clock.
While Brian and Diane lament the problems of a busy night, I’m starting to appreciate their uncompromising attitude toward their fish and chips.
So cooking aside, why does it taste so good? Apparently, the batter is a proprietary blend, a recipe that is unique to Joeys. Even though Joeys looks like an independent restaurant, surprisingly it’s a franchise (headquartered in Calgary). “Every restaurant across Canada will have the same batter,” says Brian. “Like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s a secret recipe, but it does have a beautiful flavour doesn’t it?” Ha, a man who stands behind his product!
What I could glean from our conversation is that Diane and Brian mix the batter with an active ingredient that acts just like CO2 bubbles, aerating the batter to make it very light. Then they test it almost hourly to ensure the viscosity remains perfect. Batter too thick takes too long to cook and you get raw batter on the inside. Batter too thin and the fish doesn’t cook properly. It’s the batter-to-fish ratio that Brian and Linda have perfected and the reason why everyone comes to Joey’s to eat fried fish on a Friday night.
There are over 229 million portions of battered, fried fish sold in England each year. Surprisingly, Canada doesn’t keep similar fish and chip statistics but I would imagine we’ve got a long way to go before we can claim it as a national dish like the English do.
After more than 2 decades in St Catharines, Joeys has become a fish and chip institution. “We’ve seen a lot of fish and chips shops go and we’re still here,” says Diane proudly. “We must be doing something right.”