Forget greasy imported basa fillets and limp chips: this summer there is an increased demand for elevated versions of classic fish and chips. Juicy flakes of fish, audibly crunchy batter, piping-hot chips, lashings of house-made tartare and minimum sogginess are the crucial elements behind any great serve of the coastal favourite.
Melbourne's Stokehouse on St Kilda Beach has one of the country's most upmarket offerings, serving battered fillets of wild-caught rock flathead showered in seaweed salt over planks of fried innovator variety potatoes on dill-spiked tartare sauce for $39.
"When you sit down with an ice-cold beer on the beach and bite into the perfect batter, there is nothing better," says Stokehouse executive chef Jason Staudt. "Whatever anyone says about fish and chips, everyone is chasing a great batter."
Staudt's batter uses a combination of plain flour, rice flour, baking powder, and "secret ingredient" trisil powder (magnesium trisilicate), which keeps out excess moisture so the coating stays crisper, longer.
Stephen Hodges, who ran classic Sydney restaurant Fish Face and is one of Australia's most learned seafood experts, says the colder the batter and the hotter the oil the better.
"I actually put ice in my batter," he says. "Also don't overwork the batter – if you watch the Japanese put a tempura together, they use a pair of chopsticks. That's your best approach."
Hodges is a consultant for Fish and Lemonade in Sydney's Manly, a modern update on the humble fish and chipper serving premium New Zealand hake, Tasmanian salmon, and Queensland barramundi for its fish and chips.
"We like to use 'blue tick' fish, certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council," he says. "It's pretty important these days."
Fish and Lemonade's co-owner Veronica Papacosta, a third-generation seafood retailer and Seafood Industry Australia chief executive, says there are regional differences when it comes to the holiday staple.
"NSW is very much about having larger cuts of hake or basa as the fish, while Victoria usually uses a smaller portion of gummy shark, or flake," she says.
The official name of the dish's most popular supporting snack is also up for debate: it's a potato scallop in NSW, a potato cake in Victoria.
Fish by Moonlite in Victoria's Anglesea makes one of the best potato cakes in the state. A thick slab of hand-cut desiree potato infused with garlic and bay leaves, then encased in an awesomely crunchy batter.
"We've worked tirelessly on getting the batter right," says owner-chef Matt Germanchis. "We carbonate water to order so it has a fresh effervesce."
Moonlite's fish is also local and varied, with snapper, flake, rockling, gurnard, flathead and John Dory sourced from Apollo Bay, Lakes Entrance and Corner Inlet.
"We have a fish cabinet which displays fresh fish each day – there's nothing hidden," says Germanchis. "I try not to use fish that's too oily, such as kingfish or blue grenadier."
Hodges suggests using a brining technique for the best fried fish. "You can do a long brine, which uses a low percentage of salt to water left there for hours, or you can do it rapidly at six per cent salt and drop the fish in there for an hour … It stabilises the fish [before frying]."
Presentation is also key – fish and chips rarely survive a long commute wrapped in damp paper and are best eaten on-the-spot.
"We also cut the fish on a particular angle so when you crack open the batter, you see these beautiful white chunks of fish, and the fish stays the hero," says Papacosta.
Why does fish and chips remain such an enduring favourite? "With so many restaurants closing this year, people are turning to the take-away roots they're familiar with," says Germanchis.
Papacosta agrees. "There's a romanticism about seafood, and we all have a seafood story," she says. "It's that summer vibe that's just so Aussie. Fish and chips taste like Australia."
Fich at Petersham Shop 3, 98-106 Audley Street, Petersham
Fich co-owners Jose Silva and Manny Paraiso both worked under Guillaume Brahimi in his Bennelong days and boy, can the pair fry a good chip. The crisp, golden rods are teamed with beer-battered ling at their smart-casual fish shop, and yes – you want an extra scallop in your takeaway pack. Diners eating in are rewarded with a menu also featuring Queensland king prawns sharpened with coconut vinegar and chilli, and a $100 seafood platter heaving with oysters, bugs, mussels, calamari and a cornucopia of other fishy deliciousness. Bring a friend; crack a riesling. fichpetersham.com
Fish and Lemonade Shop 15 Manly Wharf, East Esplanade Manly
True to its name, the Manly venue offers six cold-pressed lemonades as the ideal accompanying beverage, including apple, dragon fruit and ginger, blue spirulina and cucumber and mint versions. "When you've got the creamy fish, crisp batter and the oil content – which we love – you need something to balance it all out," says co-owner Veronica Papacosta. You'll also find house-made sauces such as red onion chilli jam, tomato chutney and yoghurt tartare. fishandlemonade.com.au
Rick Stein at Bannisters 191 Mitchell Parade, Mollymook Beach
Would you like dripping with that? The secret to English celebrity chef Rick Stein's premium fish and chips is that it's fried in beef dripping, not oil, for a richer flavour. Thick fillets of local fish (perhaps blue-eye trevalla) are served in a beer batter with triple-cooked sebago potato chips, co-starring British mushy peas and house-made tartare for a taste of Old Blighty. bannisters.com.au
Fish Shop 87 Glenayr Avenue, Bondi Beach
Billing itself as "more than a fish shop", this new kid on the block is from the team behind hit salad chain Fishbowl. The eatery is set to launch this summer at Bondi's new Sevenways precinct, and when the dining room starts pumping punters can settle in with natural wine, fresh oysters, confit tuna salad, hot smoked trout and elegantly seared snapper. Alternatively, pick up a classic takeaway fish and chip box to scoff on the sand. fishshop.com.au
Fish Butchery 388 Oxford Street, Paddington
When he's not cooking at Saint Peter, you can often find Josh Niland just up the road from his lauded restaurant, flipping Mooloolaba tuna burgers at Fish Butchery. The hatted chef's takeaway shop might have the loudest, crunchiest fish-and-chips in town (the secret is a splash of vodka in the batter) and with a few salt-and-vinegar onion rings on the side, the dish is deep-fried heaven in a box. Don't miss the crumbed Bermagui mirror dory sandwich either. fishbutchery.com.au
Fish by Moonlite Shop 4, Anglesea Shopping Village, 87-89 Great Ocean Road, Anglesea
After a successful tenure running Captain Moonlite at the Anglesea Surf Life Saving Club, chef Matt Germanchis has turned his hand to perfecting fish and chips. The carbonated batter offers maximum crunch, and the condiment selection includes house-made chicken salt – a blend of turmeric, paprika, sugar, onion and garlic powder – set on the counter to apply liberally. The meal doesn't have to be a calorie splurge, with grilled fish options and a daily chopped salad. fishbymoonlite.com.au
Hobsons Bay Hotel 28 Ferguson Street, Williamstown
This handsomely revamped corner pub in Williamstown reopened in December with chef Ben Pigott (ex-Supernormal) steering the ship. The lightly battered fish of the day is served with chunky tartare and salad for a more health-conscious approach. Also on the menu: a fluffy white bread fish finger sandwich with remoulade and butter lettuce. Heck yes. hobsonsbayhotel.com.au
Pipis Kiosk 29A Beaconsfield Parade, Albert Park
The Albert Park beach kiosk swings again at the former Nshry site, with a window serving generous fish and chips alongside a sharp drinks list including tinnies of Moon Dog beer and pet-nat sparkling wine in cans. The crisp salt cod croquettes, a lighter salmon nicoise salad and the decadent cheese and gravy poutine are optimal sidekicks, with the full dining room due to open in early 2021. pipiskiosk.com.au