From haggis to halibut, Oreo cookies to Mars Bars, the Scottish love of all things cooked in oil bubbles over at St. Andrew’s Fish and Chips.
Stephen Watson picks up a slender halibut filet and dunks it in a pail of batter, letting the excess drip off, before carefully laying it down in a bubbling fryer full of dark brown fat. It sizzles with a sound like faint static, and when it begins to curl from the heat, Watson flattens it out against the drying rack, so it stays perfectly straight. He watches as the fish turns a golden halo around the edges, placing it on a plate next to a heap of thick-cut, double-fried French fries.
This is fish and chips at its finest: ungarnished, unblemished, and just the way God intended. The halibut is tender and moist. The batter, crisp with bubbly ridges, adheres perfectly to the fish, so that each bite is crunchy and somewhat sweet, enhanced only by a flick of salt and a dash of malt vinegar. “We never had tartar sauce when I was growing up,” says the white-haired Watson in his Scottish brogue, as he returns to tending the fryer at St. Andrew’s Fish and Chips, just south of Scarborough Town Centre.
Once, not so long ago, Toronto was very much a Scottish town. It was largely founded by Scots and settled by Scottish immigrants, whose names (e.g., George Brown, John A. MacDonald) still mark our streets and parks and schools. The last city census from 2006 still has more than 11 per cent of Torontonians claiming a Scottish background, about the same as those of Chinese or South Asian heritage, and second only to those who claim an English heritage. In terms of food, though, Toronto’s Scots might as well be the smallest community in the city, which makes a place like St. Andrew’s so special.
The shop was opened in 1984 by Jim Kelly—who had recently arrived from Dundee, Scotland—in a plaza with a Scottish butcher, and in an area that was then predominantly of English ancestry. Kelly’s daughter Angela now runs the place, along with relatives David Donaldson and Watson, who’s also from Dundee, a town just up the road from the restaurant’s namesake, the legendary St. Andrew’s golf club. Scottish knick-knacks line the walls, and the place feels like a small-town diner, with its worn captain’s chairs and burgundy tablecloths.
Everything is cooked to the standard of the Scottish “chippy,” which Watson recalls fondly. “There were four or five holes in the wall when I was growing up…basically take-out counters. [They were busy] on Friday, because Catholics ate fish then, and it was cheap and plentiful, since the fisheries were abundant with cod and haddock.”
The batter, which they coat pretty much everything they fry in, is a tested mixture of water, flour, salt, and baking powder. “There’s no secret ingredient,” says Donaldson, “just [secret] ratios.” They fry their food at a higher temperature than most places, resulting in a crisper, less greasy fish than your average pub. Instead of oil, they use beef fat, which Watson calls “the good, healthy stuff,” because it holds heat better than vegetable oil and imparts a rich, fuller flavour to the fish and chips.
Halibut is the choice catch, though haddock, which is a bit dryer and stronger tasting, is also a crowd favourite. What sets St. Andrew’s apart are the other specialties, each promptly battered and fried, including haggis—thick with oats, black pepper, and minced sheep meat (including heart, lungs, and liver)—and black pudding, a slightly dry blood sausage so infused with cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, you might as well have it for dessert.
In the past decade, the neighbourhood’s demographics have changed tremendously, according to Watson and Donaldson, and today the faces coming in are more likely to be Chinese or Indian than Scottish. However, the old regulars are faithful and Scots come from as far afield as Barrie to settle down with mushy peas, fish, chips, and a sweet bowl of trifle—a layered cold dessert of pound cake, preserved fruit, custard, and cream.
Some also fall prey to the ultimate chippy indulgence: the fried Mars bar. Watson will take a Mars bar, dunk it in batter, fry it for a second to let it set, then re-apply batter to where his fingers held it (so the chocolate is completely coated and doesn’t melt). Served on a plate with a scoop of ice cream, the crust-encased Mars bar has been transformed into an oozy, caramel, fat, and chocolate bomb that elevates cholesterol to an art form.
“Everything’s deep fried here,” says Watson, eyeing his empire in bubbling oil, including a number of Oreos, battered and dancing in fat. “We were doing this before the Ex.”
St. Andrew’s Fish and Chips, 1589 Ellesmere Rd., Scarborough, 416-431-6574.