I think most people share a certain experience, a childhood remembrance that rests languidly in the recesses of their subconscious. It lays in wait like the memory-inducing redolence of a Proustian cake, to ambush our best intentions (for this is not a healthy thing we do). Once triggered: we tumble head over heels down the years to the tender mood we recollect as the fish and chips experience.

As adults, whenever we have a meal of fish and chips, it’s possible that we are simply trying to replicate that fish and chips experience of our youth. We want the taste we once knew, and the resulting inevitable sense of well-being. But bad fish and chips or good fish and chips, the aromatic trigger works in the same way. So, unless we have a dependable fishmonger, the experience can be a disappointing one. A master fryer can coat and cook his halibut to a delicately lacy tempura; a hamhanded one can have you scraping grease off the roof of your mouth with a trowel.

My formative fish and chips experience dates to when I was eleven or twelve years-old. Customarily I took my lunch to school, as did most of my chums, but on the days when we were lucky enough to not have had our lunches prepared for us, we headed for the little fish and chips joint across the road from the schoolyard. I always ordered the same thing: fish, chips, side of slaw, white bread and butter, and an Orange Crush, maybe two Crushes. When they hadn’t already been snapped up, the owner gave us a scoop of fish ends, the little nubbies of fried batter which broke off the fish and swam around in the bubbling grease until they were rescued with a wire net. Everyone wanted them, so you had to be lucky to get any.

The greatest fish and chip restaurant I ever came across was The Only, on Hastings Street in Vancouver. Because of the fresh Pacific seafood available to these old cooks, they were able to raise the fish and chips experience to a lofty standard. As soon as you sat down, you were given a plate stacked high with thick, aromatic slices of home-made bread, and great daubs of soft pale yellow butter. I usually selected poached Alaska black cod and boiled potatoes from the menu, and a steaming cup of clam nectar (which came with two clams in their shells on each saucer). Occasionally I’d order pan-fried salmon or poached halibut; sometimes a fry of oysters and eggs. Or the best damned oyster stew I ever tasted.

The ambience of The Only was part of the experience, too. There were two small booths at the back of the restaurant (which were inevitably occupied) and, out front, two horseshoe-shaped counters that accommodated about a dozen diners each.  Everyday a line-up would already have formed by the time the restaurant opened its doors, and the line-up would last all day. If you came with another person, and a single seat became available, you took it. Adjacent seats seldom became available. And you might find a court judge to the left of you, and a bum with a stitched-up face  on your right. I was in Vancouver about a year ago and alas, The Only had changed hands. I easily got a booth. The food wasn’t bad. It had been about twenty years. The old cooks probably had died.

Today I drew the Islington station ball, and while trolling the neighboring vicinity the lure of deep-fried fish wriggled up my nostrils and hooked my memory. Indeed, landed it! And it wasn’t without a mental fight that I entered the Kingsway Fish and Chips; I’ve been trying to eat healthfully lately, and even as I slid into the comfy banquette I didn’t admit to myself that I was craving the fish and chips experience. In fact, I opened the menu and immediately eliminated the item as a choice. I’d choose the Caesar salad. Or some crab. Or the hearty seafood chowder. That’s it: I’d order the seafood chowder. And a nice cup of tea. I closed my menu and the snappy waitress was beside me.

“What’ll it be?” she said.

“Fish and chips, please.”

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(C) 2013 arne torneck all rights reserved

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