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Murray Chalmers: Fish and chips and deep fried Mars bar is food for the soul

Building exterior of The Deep Sea Restaurant, Nethergate, Dundee.
Building exterior of The Deep Sea Restaurant, Nethergate, Dundee.

“Decadent” lunch at the seaside in St Andrews is just the perfect way to spend a spring day, discovers Murray Chalmers.

Before he discovered the joys of country life in California, John Lydon-Rotten once declaimed that “anger is an energy”, a sentiment certainly holding firm for so many of us right now.

These past few weeks would have tested the patience of saints and some days it’s impossible not to channel Brando in The Wild Ones before you even crack open your breakfast egg. What am I rebelling against? What have you got?

I write this the day after I got the Covid vaccination – Oxford AstraZeneca, since you ask, although our hapless UK Government seem to have stopped reminding us it’s British. Curious that! My comedown today includes a runny nose, a mild headache, a general grump and a desire for fish and chips for lunch.

In other words, not much different to a regular midweek slump when you remember that Friday exists as a concept even though it’s still too far off to be real – a bit like bars, trawling TK Maxx and the possibility of sex for us singletons.

Kinshaldy Beach at Tentsmuir, Fife.

I was going to write about Salt and Pine on Tentsmuir beach because it sounded a bit like I could pretend to be in Montauk with the Barefoot Contessa cooking up a storm in the woods.

But after what felt like a Sisyphean task of actually finding out Salt and Pine’s opening hours – I won’t bore you with it but I can confirm their social media does offer a prominent range of T-shirts but no hope of anything to eat – I was finally told they weren’t actually open yet.

Decadent idea

Fish and chips for lunch on a Wednesday seems a pretty decadent idea right now. I mean, it’s not exactly up there with hazy memories of partying with Kate Moss in the Naughty Noughties but it’s probably as crazy as I get these days.

At the age of 61 I’ve definitely learned to take my pleasures when offered. My new favourite phrase is “if God spares me” which means I’ve finally turned into my granny except with my own teeth, cooler specs and without the directoire knickers drying by the fire.

It was a sunny day and St Andrews beckoned.

St Andrews East Sands.

St Andrews is blessed with such beauty and, just as importantly, many great fish and chip places. I normally go to Tailend because you get exactly what they promise and it’s classic and good.

Also, I have an emotional loyalty to Tailend in Dundee because it’s berthed on the site of the iconic Deep Sea Restaurant, a fixture in the city for 77 years, and a place I adored and still miss.

Classic Dundee

In 2014 another piece of classic Dundee disappeared when the Deep Sea was sold to Tailend, who undertook a huge refurbishment – but thankfully one that worked.

It’s a very nice space, and the fact I still get a wonderfully nostalgic feeling when walking through the doors is proof that the Proustian idea of memory is easily translatable from a delicate madeleine cake to the fuggy, oily thump of a potato fritter.

This time, however, a friend in St Andrews suggested Cromars which, according to their excellent website, is “where fish meets chips in officially the best fish and chip shop in Scotland 2016 and 2018” (the awards came from the National Fish and Chip awards, so it’s laudable to win twice).

Cromars’ website must be commended for ease of use but also because the simple design initially concealed their shameful pun using the word plaice while describing their location, and that their staff are cheerily described as “our catch”.

But hey, the sun was shining, I’d had the jab and who am I to feel churlish about a few bad fishy puns when written by such lovely soles? And the staff ARE lovely.

Until the shop reopens fully you order and pay online and collect from a hatch signposted by an upturned surfboard. A beach is minutes away. Nothing could be nicer.

I had chosen Cromars because we wanted to try somewhere new but have to admit that their closeness to a beach was also a guiding factor.

This proximity to an alfresco lunch venue reduced the transit time of food that David maintains has to be served either ulcer-inducingly hot, or not at all.

Mental warfare

An expedition with David to get fish and chips swiftly turns into mental warfare so fraught that psychologist RD Laing could have written volumes about it.

Let me explain the seriousness of all this lest you think that Brexit and Covid are the only subjects keeping me awake at night.

If our fish and chips is coming from The Fifie in Newport (five minutes by car from our houses) you’d assume that collection would be relatively simple. You’d be wrong.

Firstly, it’s a two-man job to make sure that not a whisper of cold air gets into that food before getting it home.

Fifteen minutes before departure the oven goes on and the plates go in. Salt, the cheapest kind – never Maldon or Blackthorn – is ceremoniously placed on the table next to malt vinegar. No cutlery ever. The fanciest additions to this meal will be two pieces of kitchen roll as napkins, and even they are often an affectation too far. The scene is set.


Driving to the chippie the tension becomes palpable. Will there be a parking space near enough? Dare we park on a double yellow just to gain those vital few extra seconds? Is tonight fritter night? What exactly is a pizza crunchy and is that number of calories even legal?

I kid you not when I say that I’m left in the car with the engine running while David goes in to get our prize catch (yes, I know my plaice and I’m too much of a happy sole to protest). Those vital seconds of reigniting the engine must not be lost even if we’re defying all rules of social, societal and environmental etiquette. Please don’t snitch on us to Greta!

For a moment Steppenwolf’s iconic rebel song Born To Be Wild, where you “get your motor runnin’ and head out on the highway”, is reimagined on Newport High Street, albeit by two old crocks with a combined age of 123. Don’t mess!

Usain Bolt.

Usain Bolt

There follows a sprint from the chippie to the car worthy of Usain Bolt at his best, and then a dash home which feels like there should be a law against it – think Concorde but trapped in the body of an old VW with 60,000 miles on the clock and a radio still defiantly tuned to Rinse FM from when it was stolen from outside my house in Walthamstow.

In St Andrews the drive to the East Sands was a doddle and we set up base on the wall overlooking the bay. It was perfect and also no avenging seagulls came close to heighten my Hitchcock paranoia – my true nightmare!

The food was excellent. My scampi supper (£12.30) was just the kind of comfort food I needed when you feel a bit invaded by an injection but decide to have food instead of Dairy Milk.

The scampi had been fried to perfection, the coating crispy, dark and hugely moreish. Big portion too! Ace chips, fantastic tartare sauce and a can of full fat Coke were the decent accompaniment although my jubilant mood could have easily swung to some chilled Chablis had I not been off the booze.

David’s vegetarian black pudding supper (£7.80) caused a split in the ranks when he pronounced it a bit disappointing. I disagree, but then I’m not vegetarian and it wasn’t my lunch. I thought the black pudding tasted great, with a nice piquancy and depth from the spicy onions, so we agreed to differ.

One thing to mention here is that Cromars do have other vegetarian options available but they are all quite heavy – things like macaroni cheese, brie wedges and vegetarian sausages. Since they already do a tempura prawn dish (£9.60) I would perhaps offer some tempura vegetables or something a little lighter for vegetarians (Dean Banks at Haarbour, for example, does an excellent sesame tempura veg for £8).

Deep fried Mars bar.

To share we had some great mushy peas (£1.90), two pickled onions (70p) and a potato fritter (80p).

For dessert we had a deep-fried Mars bar because neither of us had tried one, despite it being an almost mythical easy target for those wishing to poke fun at Scottish cuisine. As such it could only really be something of an anti-climax because it tasted pretty much equal to the sum of its parts.

Squidgy Mars bar and batter

There was no revelatory moment where I thought that someone had reinvented the culinary wheel but, at the same time, there wasn’t an “is that all there is?” moment either. It tasted of squidgy Mars bar and batter, although I do feel it would be best eaten straight from the fryer, the searing heat of the oil threatening instant blisters on the lips which the melted chocolate could do nothing but salve.

I note that as a more elitist take on the idea Nigella Lawson introduced the idea of deep-fried Bounty bars with pineapple in her book Nigella Bites. I haven’t tried this but obviously the combination of coconut and pineapple is a good one and in her intro Nigella does say that the joy of the deep-fried Bounty is greater than the Mars Bar. Since I would trust that woman with my life, I believe her.

Her suggestion of a deep-fried Cadbury’s Crème Egg for Easter seems inspired.

Come on, Cromars – give it a go!

Cromars, 1 Union St, St Andrews KY16 9PQ. Tel: 01334 475 555

More in this series …

Food For Thought: Fine flavour of Italian family cuisine a boost to wellbeing

Murray Chalmers: Dining in style with West End boys and some ice-cool girls