It's only the second weekend of business at A Salt & Battery, and the tiny, shiny fish-and-chips shop is more crowded with nostalgia-starved expat Brits than the Condé Nast cafeteria on beans-on-toast day. There's an old coot with a white beard, a tweed cap, and a Barbour coat who looks like he's been hiking across heathery fields. A little boy named Alfie in a soccer uniform chanting, "I love fish and chips." And a man with a walking stick who looks primed to belt out a verse of "Get Me to the Church on Time." "I thought I'd met every English person in town," says co-owner Nicky Perry -- who began her colonization of a small stretch of Greenwich Avenue with her ten-year-old restaurant, Tea & Sympathy, and its English-dry-goods-sweet-shop spin-off, Carry on Tea & Sympathy. Those countrymen include Rupert Everett, most of the cast of Riverdance, and Tina Brown, all of whom have already patronized the new shop, some more fervently than others. "Tina Brown nearly knocked me senseless," says Perry, recalling her encounters with the impatient editrix before the grand opening. "It was always, 'When, when, when, when, when, when, when, when, when?' "
What are Ms. Brown and her compatriots getting their knickers in a twist about? Well, aside from the main attraction, there are mushy peas, pickled onions, and sweet Heinz baked beans, all imported from the U.K.; a relentlessly cheery British staff spouting cockney slang between orders; and, to cap things off, improbably edible deep-fried Mars bars. In other words, as authentic an English fast-food experience as you're likely to find anywhere, should you be looking for one. "Everything but a post-meal beating from Chelsea fans," says our expat friend in greasy-chinned approbation.
Of course, fish and chips haven't just washed up on these shores. We've got fancified restaurant versions like Nicole's and Guastavino's, and the Oyster Bar's sad facsimile. For a Swede, Christer Larsson makes an honest effort at his Grand Central kiosk, even if his herb-flecked tartar sauce and fries outclass the English archetypes and his beer batter can be inconsistent. English Harbour, the last stab at re-creating an honest-to-God chippy, started strong and then lost focus, not to mention its talented fryer, Patrick "Patsy" Carroll, who used to cook in the British Merchant Navy.
Carroll has resurfaced at A Salt, where, true to form, he runs a tight ship. His chips are historically accurate, even if they bear no resemblance to French fries as most Americans know and love them. They're soft and mushy, anemically pale yellow, and thick-cut -- perfect for soaking up a squirt of malt vinegar or dipping in a side order of mildly spicy curry sauce. Then again, why not celebrate them in all their starchy glory in a chip butty, a mound of soggy spuds sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread.
As for the fish, the halibut is the best and the most expensive at $7.95 for two good-size fillets, snowy white and delicate and encased in a flavorful golden-brown batter. (Chips are an additional $3.50.) There's also a firmer, meatier, stronger-flavored rock salmon, a.k.a. dogfish; a salty, tasty whiting; and, of course, a moist and flaky cod, the gold standard of the fried-fish genre.
Even Americans know the real thing doesn't come on fine china or paper plates. Perry's crew double-wraps every order in butcher's paper and British newsprint (recently, the Observer and the Sunday Times). These bundles travel surprisingly well, but it's more fun to gobble your piping-hot order at the narrow counter, equipped with bottles of Sarson's malt vinegar and HP sauce, where there's room (barely) to spread out your peas and beans, curry, and a can of shandy or a ginger beer, and soak up the ambience (while your clothes soak up the distinctive aroma of frying fish).
If you crave fruit after all that fat, there's the banana (deep-fried, of course, and dusted with sugar). Or go out with a bang. Salute the famous British sweet tooth, as we did, with that battered and supremely gooey melted Mars bar, a reckless act that prompted the unsolicited advice of a counterman wearing a T-shirt with the legend in cod we trust. "After you've finished," he told us, "go out the door and take a left. There's a hospital emergency room three blocks from here." Which made us wonder: Can fish-and-chips culture flourish in a society without a national health service?