Real chips don't need a plate

KINGFISH: 36 Sussex Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex RH16 4EA. Tel: 01444 412601 Open daily from 11.15am to 3pm and from 5 to 10pm, Friday and Saturday until 10.30pm. Average price per person, pounds 6. Major credit cards accepted
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The Independent Culture
Haywards Heath in Sussex is not a town overendowed with good restaurants. But even if it were I should recommend Kingfish. I have collected fish and chips there a great many times, and the standard is so consistently excellent - the fish so fresh, the batter of exactly the right texture and flavour, the chips so thick and free of blemishes, crisp outside and soft inside, that I think it probably deserves some kind of Michelin award.

When we went and had lunch there in the restaurant through a red-curtained swing door next to the takeaway counter I was afraid it might be a disappointment. There is something about fish and chips, even if they are not wrapped in newspaper - and Kingfish provides a little cardboard plate, hygienic wrapping and a paper bag - that screams for the fingers, the open air, the moon and the stars, the luminous surf bursting on the shingle. Even brought home and shaken out onto your own plates, soaked with your own tomato ketchup and eaten with knives and forks, fish and chips still has a whiff of the wild, a reminder of what it felt like to come home to the cave with a haunch of bison. To eat it in a fish and chip restaurant seems a bit tame.

There is nothing tame about Kingfish. From the table in the window you can watch the more eccentric folk of Haywards Heath loping, limping or waddling all innocently by, as well as enjoying a good view across the road of two gentlemens' hairdressers, the front of a Do-It-Yourself shop and a place called Tiny Tinkers that sells second-hand prams and baby- raising equipment. At night the prospect is more louche, raked with headlights.

The restaurant itself is predominantly red, the tables have red plastic tops. There are little lamps shaped like brandy glasses, and plastic menu holders containing luridly-coloured illustrations of ready-made puddings. We ordered two glasses of lager and settled down to enjoy the view.

The service was quick and charming, and the two senior chefs responsible for frying could be seen through an open doorway in the kitchen shovelling up chips, pinching them between finger and thumb, and tossing them, if they were completely ready, into the right gleaming chromium compartment. Fish was dredged up from the hot fat and left for a moment to firm up.

Kingfish is also a little more ambitious than the average chippy. At the top of the wine list, for sophisticates, there is some kind of champagne at pounds 15.90 a bottle, and there are four or five white wines, including a local Piltdown. It was a Barkham Manor Rivaner-Kerner Dry English Table Wine at pounds 5.60 a bottle.

Apart from the usual battered cod, huss, plaice and haddock, there were variations on the theme. There were all the same fish panfried in butter, capers and black pepper, plus chicken Kiev, garlic bread, crispy mushrooms, breaded prawns Japanese style and whitebait. This made life extremely difficult. All I wanted was the usual delicious battered haddock and chips. Instead of that, being your grateful reviewer, I felt it was my duty to taste the alternatives. I tried persuading my wife that she might enjoy panfried haddock for a change, but she said she was too hungry. The final compromise was that she would have the whitebait to start with, I would have the Japanese style prawns and then the panfried haddock. We also ordered a bottle of the Piltdown wine.

The whitebait was a bit dry and uninterestingly over-battered, the Japanese prawns strangely straight - they seemed to have lost hope in the batter and abandoned their natural curl - but quite tasty dipped in the little pot of tomato sauce that came with them.

The Barkham Manor Rivaner-Kerner Dry English Table Wine was, I think, a taste it might take some strength of mind to acquire. The waitress said the proprietor stocked it out of local patriotism. My wife detected a hint of dandelion, I was prepared to concede a large flowery nose, but I wasn't sure it was the ideal accompaniment to panfried haddock.

The haddock, loaded though it was with capers and as delicately cooked as you could ask for, was not as good as I had hoped. The chips I had ordered with it were as good as ever, but it wasn't until I asked my wife for a bit of her ordinary battered haddock that I realised what I was missing.

It came back to the mystery of good fish and chips. I asked the proprietor what he cooked it in. It was palm oil. They had tried groundnut oil, but when he took what they had left at the end of the night back home to feed to his dogs he noticed the batter stuck to his fingers. Why were there no little over-fried bits sticking in the batter? Because they kept the oil clean. A man had tried to sell them a filter a few weeks ago that cost two thousand pounds, they had put their oil through it, and there was nothing caught in the mesh.

I think that the real secret, apart from the freshness of the fish, is cooking nothing till it is ordered. It may mean a wait of five or ten minutes if you're taking it away, but it is definitely worth it.

I avoided the technicolour puddings - my wife was shouting "eugh" in a way I find damaging to the dignity of a discreet if naive restaurant reviewer - and had a lemon sorbet, which was okay. We finished off with two cups of coffee.

It seems cruel to want to clip the wings of a fish and chip restaurant that is bent on rising into the realms of haute cuisine like a knockabout comedian aspiring to play Hamlet, but when the act is as good as that there's a strong argument for staying with what you do best.

Lunch for two of us with the drinks and the coffee came to pounds 27.50 plus the tip.