965 Bourke St Waterloo, NSW 2017
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner Wed-Sun|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
If you wanted to start a fight with a food fan five years ago, all you had to do was declare that Doyles at Watsons Bay was home to Sydney's best fish and chips. Or Out of the Blue in Clovelly. Or Mohr Fish, Surry Hills. "Nonsense, what about Fat Fish in Annandale?" would be a common response, usually followed by "not to mention Ocean Foods in Drummoyne and Palm Beach Fish and Chips. Windsor Seafoods is pretty bloody good, too."
I would bat for Doyles, due to its choice of local snapper or mirror dory – both invariably better fried than the unfortunately ubiquitous basa (a type of imported catfish that tastes of nothing) and New Zealand hoki. But, in short, there wasn't a chipper universally acknowledged to possess a gold-standard version of battered fish and bronzed spuds.
Enter chef Josh Niland, who opened Fish Butchery with his wife Julie in 2018, a few doors up from their hatted Paddington seafood temple, Saint Peter. Wedged into a former hair salon, the couple's retail store also offered a takeaway menu featuring pink ling in a batter spiked with vodka.
The spirit's high level of booze boils quickly when it hits hot oil, crisping the batter before the fish overcooks. The result is a craggy tranche of crunch with layers that could give a mille-feuille a run for its money, Niland's ling perfectly steamed inside its golden sarcophagus. Twice-cooked sebago chips were like little deep-fried clouds.
Food lovers everywhere gave an approving nod. This was the one. This was Sydney's best fish and chips. Fish Butchery launched a Waterloo outpost for dine-in and takeaway in February, so inner-south locals can now enjoy its audible crunch straight from the fryer, too.
Josh and Julie Niland are determined to show that fish can do anything meat can do, but often better, and usually more healthily. Waterloo has become the base of their operations (which also includes Rose Bay's Charcoal Fish), and in a long, gleaming room customers can watch chefs fillet, bone, dice and cure myriad ocean treats for restaurant and retail.
A three-metre-long fridge flanks one side of the butchery, loaded with take-home meals such as tuna lasagne, swordfish empanadas and Murray cod quiche. Posh relatives to impress in a pinch? The smoked trevalla pie is your friend. I'll be returning for ballet slipper-pink cutlets of Spanish mackerel from the display case.
The dining area of Fish Butchery is nothing like Saint Peter, where chefs work behind a marble counter and present guests with raw kingfish on Royal Copenhagen plates. Rather, you can expect to be eating from a cardboard box, outdoors, with a view to Kennards Self Storage. Affordable wine is poured in smash-proof cups; cutlery can be recycled. I could be drinking pinot gris out of a Pringles can for all it matters. This is food that transcends its surroundings.
An eight-ish item menu changes daily, but fresh-shucked oysters ($4.50 each) are a constant, as is a double-cheeseburger ($20) made with yellowfin tuna offcuts for a juicy medley of fats. Waste mitigation has never been so delicious.
Fish Butchery's prices are higher than the average chip shop, but not many can say they spotlight the most-prized wild catch in the country. Barbecued King George whiting is sourced from Corner Inlet in Victoria, and the sweet and flaky flesh of Australia's best table fish is pretty much a bargain at $38 a serve. (You'll pay about $55 at Rockpool Bar & Grill.)
Dusky flathead ($30) is also treated to a spin on the barbie, and salads – such as snappy green beans with pistachio pesto – are $8 on the side.
Meanwhile, a baguette is stuffed with more prawns than it can hold, plus thick-sliced avocado and racy cocktail sauce ($28). I'm praying it'll still be available to accompany cricket in front of the telly come next summer.
And those fish and chips? Still cracking, and starring red-snapper relative nannygai ($28) one visit, and Nelson Bay-caught mirror dory ($24) the next.
It's a welcome return to the great chippers of the past: the almost mythical corner shops battering different Australian fish daily, depending on what was most firm-fleshed and fatty.
Here's to more takeaways following suit by ditching cheap imports and charging the prices a sustainable fisher – or farmer – deserves. Few things give me greater pleasure than debating the source of Sydney's best fish and chips. I think Niland would enjoy the competition, too.
Vibe: Highly polished, fish-and-chip-shop casual
Go-to dish: Batter-fried fish and chips with yoghurt tartare and lemon
Drinks: A few seafood-friendly wines by the bottle and glass, plus local beers and craft kombucha
Cost: About $70 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine