In the city of Leeds in England’s Northern Country there is a one hundred year old organization called the National Federation of Fish Friers. Their mission is simple: to protect and promote the future of fish frying through a series of training classes and qualification programs. They are on call, apparently, and members of the federation can phone in at any time with all of their fish and chip related questions and concerns. They have a bi-monthly, The Fish Friers Review, and every year name one fortunate prodigy as the ‘Young Fish Frier of the Year’. As Susan Kennedy, owner of Chipper, explained the details I presumed it was a very elaborate jest. We giggled as she chatted about the federation and for a moment I let my thoughts drift off to imagine a flounder-shaped phone hanging on the kitchen wall with a direct line to the UK’s head chipper.
It wasn’t a joke. As it turns out, fish frying is serious business. “It’s a totally different world,” Kennedy begins with a big smile. “When I was a little girl, this isn’t exactly what I dreamed about.” Quite the understatement. Kennedy is an interior designer by trade and continues to run a boutique consultancy firm. The Dublin native worked in San Francisco and New York City for a decade and a half before meeting her partner Marcelo Liska, a carpenter, while on vacation in Buenos Aires.
Neither had any experience in the restaurant business, but a void in the local scene convinced the pair to open the country’s first ‘chipper’, the British vernacular for a shop that specializes in fish and chips. The two have a natural knack for hospitality. Regulars popped in throughout our meal and were greeted by name. Marcelo pointed out a diner that used to live around the corner that continues to come in once a month even after having moved house. A steady supply of malt vinegar, a must for any serious chipper shop, is brought in regularly by friends and faithful customers. The space is warm and inviting; Kennedy decorated the main dining room in a deep sea blue and intricate drawings of seahorses and octopus. Although the restaurant isn’t designed like the chipper pubs I visited in London, it remains a casual and friendly space.
The fact that Chipper is the only restaurant of its kind isn’t the only thing that makes it an aberration on the restaurant map. Fish in general is not a common sighting on most porteño menus. And, in my humble opinion, very few places consistently serve dishes that are worth the price tag—with the exception maybe of sliced sole decorated in cilantro and lime at the city’s countless Peruvian restaurants, one off dishes on red meat heavy cartas, a side of fried rabas or gambas al ajillo at an old cantina like Albamonte or a fancy evening out at a spot like Roux. Besides that? Tired grilled fish that doesn’t taste like much of anything or sushi rolls or nikkei versions of ceviche that drown in flavors of everything but fish—cream cheese for the former and sticky mango or maracuya sauce for the latter.
“We didn’t imagine it would be as difficult as it was to find the right products,” explains Liska. When the restaurant initially opened in 2013, the menu was a tame version of what it is today. The space occupied just a single floor of the now three story establishment with a menu that focused heavily on the British fast food staple. The menu slowly expanded as they found the right producers to include a wider variety of fish and shellfish as well as traditional British dishes like Shepherd’s Pie and Clam Chowder. In a meat obsessed culture “locals were slow to take to the idea,” explains Kennedy, with an initial clientele of mostly expats. Today, it’s the inverse.
It goes without saying that the house specialty is the plate of fish and chips. Guests can choose between abadejo or lenguado (cod and sole, respectively). Being a rarity on most menus, I go for the abadejo. A generous slice of fish is battered and deep-fried and served over a helping of french fries and coleslaw and should be doused with a heavy hand of malt vinegar, which is made with barley and adds a nice nutty flavor. The battered exterior has a flakey crispy crunch and not even the slightest bit of moist greasiness. Steam billows upwards as you cut in and reveals a thick fish that tastes fresh. Often fried foods are weighed down by the flavors of overused oil, but here the integrity of the meaty fish flavor is on full display.
Fat pieces of shrimp come swimming in a thick garlic cream sauce, which is perfect for dipping the rich buttery garlic bread in. Chipirones offer a nice alternative to fried calamari and unlike the case of many cuttlefish in Buenos Aires are absent of those tiny grains of sand. They are lightly battered and best dipped in a homemade tartar sauce with a heavy taste of horseradish. For the hedonists in the room, there is a plate of deep fried chorizo—small sausages sliced down the middle, battered and fried. The batter cracks with a solid crunch and reveals the slightly smokey chorizo that pairs perfectly with a sweet chili jam.
Although the life of a professional fish fryer wasn’t the future that Kennedy and Liska foresaw for themselves, for the sake of the city’s best fish and chips, I’m glad that’s where life took them.
Humboldt 1893, Palermo Hollywood
Tuesday through Thursday 7:30pm to midnight, Friday through Saturday 12:30 to 4:00 and 7:30 to 1:00am, Sunday 12:30 to 4:00pm and 7:30 to midnight
Price: $$ (AR $150-250)