The Glasgwegian fish supper is a timeless classic. And Old Salty’s shows why it’ll be with us for years to come
1126 Argyle Street, Glasgow (0141 357 5677). Meal for two, including wine and service: £35
Old Salty’s in Glasgow, which opened last autumn, is not old. Its heavy-browed, dun-coloured stone building in the Finnieston district is definitely old, but it’s amazing what a good scrub and buff will do to brickwork like that. There are old masters on the walls, but they are reproductions, the pasty-faced subjects glowering through digitised gravy-browning varnish; the typography on the window has a cheery retro feel, especially on the word “traditional” before the words “chippy & café”, but it has an uncommon gloss to it. Inside, there is a proper chippy’s stainless steel holding cabinet and the air hangs heavy with the smell of the kind of boiling fat that makes the brain shout “So wrong!” and “So right!” simultaneously. And yet the menu also offers skewers of grilled tiger prawns with lemon and chilli.
Clearly, Old Salty’s is playing a complicated game. Its literature talks about wanting to make the “fish supper special again” and in a city like Glasgow that is not a cultural icon you screw with lightly. This is a city with a tenacious grip on its hard-scrabble working-class heritage. Fish and chips is food for people who do proper work. During the Second World War it was never rationed in Britain, partly because the curiously balanced combination of protein, carbs and fat, from two ingredients we could just about source, was regarded as vital for the population’s nutritional health. But it was also because the government feared uproar if they did try to ration it.
Glasgow’s Finnieston – not so much up and coming as arisen and gone – may well now be full of bars packing negronis. Lawrence McManus, the restaurateur behind Old Salty’s, may well have opened a bunch of other places knocking out on-trend dirty burgers, or faux rustic Italian and French dishes. But with this restaurant he needs to walk a careful line: updated enough to attract the young crowd, committed enough to the eternal verities of fish and chips so he cannot be accused of murdering the dish and then jumping all over its corpse.
In the main, Salty’s pulls it off. Classic chip-shop condiments sit comfortably upon handsome, rough-hewn tables beneath industrial ducting. It manages “very now” and “very then” at the same time. And all this despite the fact that there are some truly awful things on the menu. Those skewers of tiger prawns bring flesh as tensed and hard as a Glasgow pub doorman on a Friday night. They ricochet off the teeth. Their breaded calamari rings are just so much golden, crumbed elastic. We are eating as a large group – a bunch of food writers and cooks who have managed to disguise pathological greed with a bit of reading and travel. This is a group for whom the deep-fat fryer can make most things better. Even they won’t finish the calamari.
Curiously, while Salty’s buggers that up, the big fat Crinan scallops, their flashy roes intact, are perfectly grilled and come dribbled with a pokey curry butter. At £1.75 each they are also more than on nodding terms with good value. As indeed is the whole proposition. The most expensive thing here is the cod and chips at £8.95 (a pound cheaper if you take it away). And what cod and chips! The fish is the size of one of my shoes, and I have very big feet.
Happily it’s prettier than one of my shoes. It is a burnished, bronzed, smooth, undulating thing, the golden carapace hiding a pearlescent flesh that has steamed perfectly inside the shell. And yes, I’ve gone off on one, like a wet-lipped food blogger angling for a job, and all over fried fish. But done right, as it is here, fried fish is a thing of beauty. (For those wishing to get huffy about cod consumption, stocks are in a pretty healthy place right now, and especially in the Barents Sea where much of the cod consumed here originates. As I’ve reported before, a biomass explosion in the Barents, caused by a small rise in sea temperatures, has resulted in quotas – but only to stop prices collapsing.) Both haddock and hake are equally good. Smaller portions are available.
All other chip-shop favourites are here. The famed Glasgow chicken-curry pie is apparently present and correct. Personally, I think this is one of the most dreadful things I have ever put in my mouth, and I’m pretty indiscriminate. There may be a proper soft-crust pastry shell and the meat is all prime breast, but it’s smothered in a sickly, sweet sauce that tastes like a quality control failure in a Pot Noodle factory. I am told by my Scottish friends at the table that this is exactly how it should taste. It’s their culture. I can’t get involved.
Fat cigars of batter-drenched black pudding and haggis go for a swim in the deep-fat fryer and emerge pretty much themselves. Neither are the greatest example of the craft; then again, at £4.25 for enough to use as a draft excluder on a windy Clydebank night, it’s hard to complain. The haggis, while a little smooth, has a proper peppery end. Smoked sausage has your authentic Mattessons twang and squeak; unless your teeth have skidded over the oil-slicked casing it’s not the real thing. There are mushy peas which meet with approving nods, and of course chips: lots of chips cooked in vegetable oil, which taste exactly right, which is to say, of a stumbling end to a drunken Friday night and a bunk-up behind the bus shelter. Yes, they do curry sauce.
As to dessert, no chocolate-covered confectionery was harmed in the making of this meal. And good luck to them for holding out against that. Deep frying Mars Bars is not funny or clever, and never has been. (Though a battered Snickers is another matter entirely). Instead, there is raspberry jelly which is more like an under-set jam, but is light and fresh and cuts through the grease.
The wine list is perfect. You can have anything you like as long as it’s red or white. Look, it’s £13.95 a bottle and has 13% alcohol in it. What more do you want? Oh, just have a beer instead, and shush. Service is sweet and engaged and the bill small. I emerged replete in all ways, like I’d been fed against a Russian winter. I’d like to claim I didn’t eat for the next 24 hours but we all know that’s not true. Still, dinner at Old Salty’s, where the past is carefully re-imagined, does set you up for the possibility.
Jay’s news bites
■ For another top fish supper, Olley’s in south London has much to recommend it, including numerous awards – and its location near my house. Fish can be ordered fried, grilled and steamed and as themed offerings including the “Cilla Black Experience” – haddock, three king prawns, three scallops (olleys.info). Alternatively, 200 miles from me, there’s the brilliant and also multi-award-winning Fish & Chips 149 in Bridlington, East Yorkshire (149fishandchips.co.uk).
■ Intriguing what you can get from a modern Chinese takeaway. Police near the Water Margin in Ballymena swore they could smell something, and it wasn’t crispy duck. They found a cannabis farm inside, seized plants worth £150,000 and arrested three. “They just followed their nose,” said the commanding officer.
■ The Keeper’s House at the Royal Academy, reviewed here on 22 December, has changed chef. Ivan Simeoli has been replaced by Ollie Couillaud. According to restaurateur Oliver Peyton, Simeoli “was always keen to be testing the boundaries, which is great, but that can be a bit challenging for customers in the Royal Academy”.
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