I rather missed fish and chips last year. It wasn’t in the A-list of things I missed – I didn’t miss it as much as going to restaurants, getting on an aeroplane, waking up in a hotel, or hugs, or impromptu nights down the pub, or the first beer of the holiday – but even so it was a small, nagging thing that I missed for the best part of 2020.
If I had felt comfortable going out to get fish and chips I might not been that bothered, but because I didn’t there were moments here and there that blindsided me on a week night when I was suddenly struck by how nice it would be to wander to the chippy, place my order and rush home with it while it was still hot. It’s one of those meals that can perfect a summer night, eaten out in the park or on a bench, or a cold winter’s night, the steam rising from the bag as you take those final steps home.
Fish and chips is one of those curious dishes that is sometimes eaten in restaurants – London Street Brasserie and the Lyndhurst both do excellent versions – and often eaten at home as a takeaway, but relatively rarely delivered. And until this year, I couldn’t have reviewed most chippies because you couldn’t eat your fish and chips in – it’s a very long time since Reading had a Harry Ramsden’s at the top of the Oxford Road (and eating there was always a very strange experience) and the gentrified likes of Kerbisher & Malt or Poppie’s have never made their way down the M4 to Reading from the capital.
We have plenty of burgers and a fair amount of pizza, but if you want fish and chips you still generally head for your favourite chippy and pick it up from there. And when it comes to favourite chippies, people in Reading all fly the flag for different ones. Caversham types are proud of Wings on the Gosbrook Road, Whitley residents will sing the praises of Deep Blue up on the Basingstoke Road. If you live in Earley you might have a view on Top Table or Terry Ling’s, and down in West Reading there’s 555 Fish Bar, a pescatarian take on the number of the beast.
I used to live near Seaspray, a lovely little place on Crown Street, and I was very sad when it closed. There was no longer anywhere decent within walking distance, and even if there had been going wouldn’t have felt right: people get tribal about chippies, you see.
These days my nearest fish and chip shop is Finn’s, the subject of this week’s review. It’s a few doors up from student breakfast hub Café Yolk on Hatherley Road, and I believe it’s owned by the same people. But I’m not reviewing it because it’s the closest, I’m reviewing it because it’s a more interesting beast altogether. Most fish and chip shops are still stuck in the world of a few decades ago, the turn of the century, but Finn’s is a very modern establishment. It set up an Instagram account back in 2018 and never put much effort into it, but last summer, waking up to the existential crisis faced by all hospitality businesses, it started taking social media seriously. So if you look now you’ll see an active Instagram account full of pictures that are likely to make you peckish.
And not just that: Finn’s does gluten free fish and chips on Tuesdays, and has a well-regarded vegan offering every day. And crucially, at the start of this month, Finn’s joined Just Eat, so now you can get it delivered to your door provided you live less than two miles away. This felt like a win-win to me: I was used to having to pick it up and walk home, but I was close enough to the restaurant that a delivery was bound to get to my house quicker than if I’d collected it myself.
The core of the menu is pretty compact – cod, haddock, masala fish or vegan fish (the menu doesn’t say what’s in it, which surprised me) all of which come with chips. Some come in a large, some in a regular and with some you get to choose: I have no idea why. This does mean you can’t, as some people would at a chippy, get a portion of fish each and share a bigger portion of chips, but that felt like a minor drawback.
You can also have a variety of other dishes with chips – prawns, scampi, fishcakes and so on – or you can order those as sides. Finally, of course, you can go for sauces and mushy peas, and Finn’s also serves poutine, the Quebecois speciality of chips in gravy with cheese curds. Zoë and I had had the kind of shitty day which is only really medicated with calories and booze, so we went wild in the aisles, ordered a bit of everything, poured a couple of beers and waited for our dinner to arrive.
This will disappoint a lot of you, and probably shorten the review by at least five hundred words, but my JustEat experience was absolutely exemplary. We placed the order just before 6pm and twenty minutes later the driver was outside the front door, in an Ola cab, opening up an insulated bag (a Deliveroo one, but I imagine he works for them too) and handing over a branded paper bag with our food in it.
Most of it was packed in faux-polystyrene cardboard, and all of it was piping hot, but it wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, Zoë had ordered a large cod and chips and I had ordered a large haddock and chips, but there was nothing on the boxes to indicate which was which. So I can tell you about my fish – and I think it was haddock because I picked the one with the flatter, more delicate looking fillet – but really, I can’t guarantee it wasn’t cod. Similarly, we had ordered a range of sides – the panko breadcrumbed prawns, the scampi and – this wasn’t my choice, believe you me – a battered sausage. All of them came in the same container, which didn’t bother me but might irk you if you were a pescatarian.
None of these are dealbreakers, but they’re worth mentioning. Similarly, many of my quibbles with the food were exactly that – minor quibbles, and probably things that wouldn’t occur to most people. So I would have liked my fillet of fish to be ever so slightly bigger (and my chips to be slightly smaller). I would have liked my batter to be a little crispier and not quite so soggy underneath, and I would have liked the chips to be more of a mixture of big, floury ones and the little sharp scraps that so enliven the bottom of the bag when you pick them up from a chippy.
But even so, having a fish supper on a Wednesday night on the sofa, in my comfies, watching the strangely compulsive Lightning on BBC2 (just me?) still made for a deeply enjoyable experience. The batter had plenty of flavour and seasoning, the fish fell into deeply pleasing flakes and if you can’t enjoy a plate of hot chips there might be something medically wrong with you.
The side dishes were more of a mixed bag, I’d say. I really liked the panko breadcrumbed prawns (I was put on to them by theatre impressario and one-woman arts whirlwind Steph Weller, who introduced me to Finn’s in the first place years ago), which were beautifully done with a neat contrast between the light, crunchy interior and the firm, meaty prawns within. The scampi, also breaded, but a little more claggy inside, were less successful but still decent. What both really needed, and were missing, was a dip – it would have been good to have a little tartare sauce, say, thrown in.
The battered sausage was Zoë’s idea. “You won’t eat this, will you?” she said. “When it comes to sausages you like the posh shit.” She cut into it, had a mouthful and then realised that over the last few years I’ve sneakily (and successfully) converted her to the posh shit, too. “No, I won’t finish that. But I’m fucking full anyway.” I looked at the cross-section and it did have the look and texture of mystery meat that so puts me off that kind of thing. Your mileage might well vary, but it felt to me mostly like an item you’d order if you wanted to be ironic. Some things are best left in the past, and I suspect battered sausage might be one of them: that said, if Finn’s ever decides to do a black pudding fritter I’d be the first in line for it. I’d probably camp outside the night before.
Last but not least, the poutine. This was slightly a victim of us having ordered so much food, and the way it was served – in a foil tray with a cardboard lid – meant that it felt like it went cold a lot quicker than everything else. Given that chips come with pretty much any main you order this is always likely to end up as an add-on, but that said I did quite like it. The curd cheese was firm and squeaky as it should be – like halloumi but without the saltiness – and worked beautifully and the gravy was thick and salty, if a little lacking in flavour beyond that.
It’s definitely a dish to file under Tastes better than it looks. But when you read, earlier on, that poutine was chips in gravy with cheese on top you were probably either filled with longing or revulsion, so I suspect you already know whether it’s your kind of thing. If it is, or if you’re just curious about whether eating it would make you feel dirty in a good or a bad way, I’d say it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s a shame, really, that they don’t allow you to upgrade regular chips to poutine to save you from double carbs.
The main fish you might detect in this review, I fear, is carp. Looking back through it it’s all a bit Goldilocks And The Three Bears: my fish is too small, my batter is too soggy, my poutine went cold, wah wah waaah. Did I mention that I loved my meal? Maybe I didn’t say that loudly enough, and I really should have done. The thing is, the niggles I mention are the kind that I used to have back in the good old days, when I was so blasé that I ate in restaurants all the time and was probably a lot more critical. I probably mention them more from muscle memory than genuine sentiment: the fact is, I absolutely adored my fish and chips – chips scattered with salt and drenched in Sarson’s, a lovely crimson pool of Stokes’ Bloody Mary ketchup on the side.
Our order cost just shy of thirty-five pounds, including a two pound fifty delivery charge and a fifty pence service charge. But we really went for it: if you just had a couple of portions of fish and chips the whole thing would come in around twenty quid and personally, I think that’s thoroughly decent value. What a time to be alive, when you can get someone to turn up at your door with fish and chips! When I thought about it that way, and had another gulp of my beautifully cold beer, I found that, ultimately, all was well in my little world. You may still cleave to your regular chippy, and I may not be able to change your mind, but I’ll just leave you with this: Finn’s really delivers.
Hatherley Road, Reading, RG1 5NA
Order via: Direct through the restaurant for collection, JustEat for delivery