A Slice of “Perfection”

Chef Heston Blumenthal, at his UK restaurant The Fat Duck, is known for pushing culinary boundaries with dishes like sardine on toast sorbet. In his book In Search of Perfection: Reinventing Kitchen Classics (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), he focuses on perfecting eight classic dishes for the home chef. In this excerpt, he relates the search for the perfect fish to use in fish and chips.

First up was Dover sole. It had a good taste and texture but what was most noticeable was the difference between the light and dark sides of the fish. And it was the latter that was disappointing: it was denser and drier. In plaice, too, this turned out to be the case. (These were the most exaggerated examples. For the rest there seemed to be little difference between light and dark. I made a note to investigate this some time in the future: it would be interesting to discover what it was about Dover sole and plaice that caused the variation.) And the flavour of plaice was altogether too delicate—less tasty than the sole. Neither was the right fish.

John Dory was much more promising—an altogether heftier chunk with a dense texture and a distinctive rich flavour. But, just as in our mammoth sausage-testing we had tasted superb examples that were none the less too far from the ideal of the British banger, so here John Dory was perhaps too dense in texture and thus too far from what we expect to find inside our batter. JD has a lovely flavour, but it felt all wrong in the mouth. Perhaps we really do need a fish with big flakes of flesh.

As if to bear this out, the turbot was terrific. The combination of large flakes, moist, succulent flesh and good flavour instantly made it the front-runner. Texture did indeed seem to be the key, for although brill also had a wonderful flavour, its smaller flakes made it less attractive overall. So we had a clear winner—unless the chippie’s choice could come up with something special.

Our final fillet was a block of cod so encrusted in batter it looked like a ship salvaged from the ocean floor. (Frying oil improves with use; coming last, cod probably had the advantage of the best batter.) It had good texture, and a good flavour, though the turbot’s was better. The cod was moist, too, but its juices were far thinner than those of the turbot. Despite fears about it being too gelatinous, the gelatin in the turbot seemed to be the X factor that worked in its favour, thickening up the fish’s juices and really adding to its succulence and flavour. This was clearly going to be an important consideration for my recipe: how to make sure the gelatin didn’t leak out during cooking. The batter would help lock it in, of course, but perhaps there were other things I could do to reinforce that.

We fried another piece of turbot to make sure we hadn’t somehow got a freak fillet. It was still delicious. We had found our fish. Now all we had to do was marry it to a batter worthy of it, and a plateful of lovely crunchy chips.