Being judged the best of something is a heavy cross to bear. There’s a weight of expectation demanded of you by the critical public who enjoy the sight of a success story being knocked off its perch. Also, the more you are built up, the bigger the risk of being overhyped. I can still remember how excited I was before I tried my first Hershey’s Kiss which had been brought back from the US as a gift. Even more vivid is the disappointment of eating something which tasted more akin to vomit than chocolate.
Colman’s in South Shields is supposedly the best fish and chip shop in the UK. They’ve won the Best Fish and Chip Restaurant 2011 in the NationalFish and Chip Shop Awards. They’re Esquire Magazine’s Best Traditional Fish and Chip Shop in Great Britain. They’re featured in The Good Food Guide 2012. It’s the favourite restaurant of local MP David Milliband. Colman’s even has its own tourist attraction street sign; I wonder how many restaurants in the UK have one of these?
With all this hype Colman’s wouldn’t have to do much wrong to be a let-down. After all with something as simple as fish and chips it’s the little things which make the difference between perfection and mediocrity.
The Colman family have been frying fish and chips since 1905 so they should have managed to perfect their art by now. Located on the slightly bleak Ocean Road, they were rammed with people of all generations by midday on a half-term Monday. The dining room of Colman’s is a clean and bright affair with enjoyably twee seaside decorations including fishnets hanging from the ceiling, historical photos of the Colman family and an altar-like water feature adorned with the Colman’s logo.
The decision making process at a fish and chip shop usually extends to medium/ large haddock/cod and chips with mushy peas/curry sauce. However at Colman’s things aren’t so simple. The menu extends to a range of rather awesome sounding dishes which go beyond the average chippy. Hand prepared scampi is made with locally caught langoustine tails (a hefty £18.95) and a range of slightly more off-beat battered fish options includes Gurnard (£12.95) and Whiting (£7.50). Colman’s even cater for the diet conscious fish and chip shop diner (surely an oxymoron) with dishes such as locally caught lobster salad (market price).
Sticking to the original (and hopefully best) I ordered cod and chips (£7.95) with a side of mushy peas (£1.20) whilst Mrs G went off-piste with a choice of a trio of Colman’s handmade fishcakes (Thai prawn, Colman’s crab & lobster). These were an eye wateringly expensive £14.50 by fish and chip shop standards.
Whilst waiting a reassuring amount of time (presumably for our mains to be cooked to order) I nibbled on an enjoyably doughy stottie and washed it down with a can of shandy.
Onto the best fish and chips in the UK.....only they weren’t. Don’t get me wrong they were perfectly serviceable but nothing better than what I’ve had from umpteen fish and chip shops up and down the UK. In fact there was a fair bit to criticise. Even though the batter was delightfully crisp and formed a good shell around the fish, the cod was a bit of a mixed bag – half of the fillet was moist and flaked perfectly whilst the tail end was dry. The chips too were just ok. They weren’t particularly fluffy, they weren’t particularly crisp – they were just unmemorable, dense chip shaped pieces of potato.
Whilst my meal had already burst the hype balloon, Mrs G’s went someway to reinflating it. Her fishcakes were the finest I have ever tasted. These bad boys were jam-packed full of fish, complexly seasoned and bore no resemblance to the breadcrumbed mashed potato pucks I would typically expect. Again the crisp batter coating was on the nail and the accompanying soy & ginger and sweet chilli dips were rather excellent.
Sides were decent but un-noteworthy. The mushy peas were hotter than a furnace whilst the creamy coleslaw was a good dip for the chips.
After such an average serving of fish and chips I thought I’d be leaving Colman’s feeling sold short. In fact I was a pretty happy customer. Whilst Colman’s don’t make the best fish & chips in the UK, I can sort of understand how the judges decided Colman’s is the best fish and chip shop in the UK. I can imagine that after having sampled a trio of fishcakes, a lobster salad and a plate of £19 scampi and chips the judge must have been won over. It must be the strength in depth of the menu which sets Colman’s apart.
|A sunny day by the seaside|
In order to walk off lunch, Mrs G and I went for a bracing walk along the beach in the crisp Northern breeze. No trip to the seaside would be complete without an ice cream and thankfully I had vague recollections of a hut halfway along the beach from my early childhood (I never forget a meal). My memory didn’t let me down and I was rewarded with a cone of creamy vanilla icecream with a generous helping of monkey’s blood.
Colmans Fish and Chips, 182 - 186 Ocean Road, South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England, NE33 2JQ
Tel - 0191 456 1202