Being stood up on a date is probably not the best experience. However, while waiting for my friend to join me, I concluded that Comptoir 21 is exactly the type of friendly establishment that would soften the blow. Why? Firstly, all the customers sit elbow-to-elbow along two wooden bar tops, so you never feel too alone. This pseudo-table also makes up the most prominent decorative feature of the restaurant. It is a long, horseshoe-shaped bar that juts out from the kitchen area at the back of the building up to the window, which looks out on the corner of St. Viateur and Clark. Secondly, the mise-en-place is simple: a knife and fork in a paper napkin. Condiments are in large sharing bottles dotted around the bar. It would be quite simple to pass off your unfortunate lack of company as a pre-planned solo meal. Thirdly, Comptoir 21 is a fish and chips restaurant, which should provide, in your lonesome hour of need, a timely reminder of a useful phrase concerning the sea and the number of its scaly inhabitants.
I won’t lie. I’m British. One of my favourite meals is fish and chips. I love few things more than eating cod and chips from a seaside “chippy” while being sheltered from the wind along a waterfront. Keeping the chips (there will be no “fries” in this article) away from the seagulls is half the fun. So when The Daily asked me to review the relatively new fish and chips restaurant, I agreed, but sharpened my critical pencil. A couple of obvious criticisms to begin with:
First, Comptoir 21 is a boring name. A good fish and chip shop name ought to be a pun. It is difficult for me to trust a non-punning chippy. My personal favourites include “Lord of the Fries”, “Moby Chip”, “A Salt and Battery”, “The Codfather”, “The Frying Scotsman”, and “Batter the Devil you Know”, I understand these names may not suit the hip mile-end scene, but sometimes it’s necessary to take a stand for what is right.
Secondly, the beer selection is poor. I concede that most chippies in Britain do not have alcohol licenses, but Comptoir 21 does, and it must try harder. “Brit and Chips” in the Old Port not only wins the game of puns, but serves London Pride: a proper British ale. Boreale Blonde, Boreale Rousse, and Guinness out of a can does not constitute a “selection” of beer.
Nevertheless my companion – who did eventually show up – and I made do with a couple of canned Guinesses and waited for our meals. I ordered the $9.95 small fish and chips, and my friend the $5.95 fried calamari. All the fish meals come with coleslaw, a slice of lemon, and your choice of sauce.
We didn’t have to wait long for our meals, but they were definitely freshly cooked. The batter on my fish was exquisite – a gorgeous dark golden hue. It fractured crisply at the touch. There was neither too much nor too little of it. The mark of high quality battering, nuggets of honeycombed batter at the tip of each end of the fish, was clear to observe and pleasing to taste.
The fish itself was more disappointing. My cod was a touch watery and bland, although it still flaked off in pleasingly large chunks. Given the overwhelming flavour of deep fried batter, the cod used should be firm and succulent.
In light of the fact that I was served the blasphemous “fries” and not proper thick-cut chips, the chips were excellent. The hand cut potatoes, still with the skin on, had absorbed just enough oil to remain warm and tempting without succumbing to the disastrous hollow and crunchy cardboard sticks that characterizes far too much of the fried potato world on this side of the Atlantic.
I was delighted to have a very generous portion of creamy tartare sauce to dip both my fish and chips into, and the coleslaw was fine.
I did not try whatever weird ‘paprika’ or ‘jalapeño’ sauce my friend had ordered because I am an upstanding member of the Commonwealth and will not mix such foreign plants with my fish’n’chips. Yet, he did assure me the sauce was more than passable.
The same could not be said about his calamari batter, which was soft and bland. The squid itself was actually fresh, moist, and well cooked. The same care that went into the cod batter was unfortunately nowhere to be found with that of the calamari.
All in all, not a bad fish and chips, despite the numerous and overt blasphemes. I thought the batter outstanding, and although the fish neared mediocrity, these problems can be easily fixed or could have been supplier or seasonal issues. Or perhaps the issue is that we have over fished the cod stocks to near extinction. Meh.
In any case, if you like fish and chips or will probably be stood up at your next date and need a backup plan, I’d give Comptoir 21 a go. Try and sneak in some real beer though. Sheesh.