This write-up has been a while coming. We've been to eat at Colmans more often than anywhere else I can think of, both before and since I started electronically recounting these gastro-ventures. The up side of this is that, unlike most places where I'll go once, declare it to be good, average or crap (as if my subjective experience on one particular night can be extrapolated from) I can fairly claim to be something of an authority on this place. I might even be worth listening to. The quid pro quo is that I'm personally invested in the things that come from their fryers; we decided some time ago that the fish and chips here are better than any around, and have brought legions of friends over the years. Such is the dilemma of expertise. Still, you can make your own mind up for under a tenner, so let's not lose any sleep over it, ok?
Talking of sleep, if you want to guarantee yourself a good one, allow me to recommend the walk from South Shields to Souter Lighthouse and back. It'll take you the thick end of three hours depending on your stride and company. Having inevitably gorged ourselves on fine food and booze over Chrimbo, a proper stagger seemed in order before downing yet more calories. We got lucky with the weather and the light, which showed the sea off in rich icy blues. The walk along the cliff-tops affords some really top grade views into various coves and bays. From Souter Lighthouse we could see what I took to be the mountains around Rothbury, around 40 miles away. We timed it just about right, getting back into South Shields as the sun went down and the temperature tumbled south from merely perishing to fucking brassic. Having stared at the sea for a good couple of hours, the idea of now eating some stuff that had come out of it was compelling.
The menu, arriving in broadsheet newspaper format, offers up all the usual fish shop standards but there's a lot else going on besides. For a kick-off, as well as cod or haddock you can try a number of other white fish battered and fried. I often go for hake, but it was unusually expensive. Maybe out of season or something? Plaice, sole, gurnard and pollack are regularly on the books. If you don't fancy fish and chips (you might, for example, be weird or mad or something) you can have crab, or squid, or monkfish or lobster prepared in a less calorific format. They even do salads and things, which actually look quite good. One of these days I'm going to go for broke and order the £20 special scampi, prepared from whole langoustines. But not this day.
No, this day I went for haddock, adding a mini-bucket (for what better or more appropriate receptacle?) of mushy peas. Full of sea air and hunger and longing as I was, the first few mouthfuls or so of this meal entirely bypassed my critical faculties, registering only on some base evolutionary level as being a Very Good Thing. Once I took a moment to bother noticing, it was quickly apparent that this was dangerously close to piscine perfection. Fish and chips, when done right, seems so simple. Crisp batter, moist fish- that's it. And yet the timing need only be off by a fraction and the whole game is up. No danger of that here, as the fish, possessed of an almost milky-fresh delicacy, stayed moist to the last. And what batter. Tell you what, let's do a close up of it.
Colmans fry theirs in veg oil, which then gets recycled as bio-fuel. Some may sneer at this, and mutter darkly about the lack of beef dripping. All good and well, but these chips are still superb. Thick, crisp at times, but - and here's the kicker - they always taste unusually potatoey.
I felt genuine remorse after finishing the fish, and once again when there were no more chips. We could have had pudding if we'd wanted. They've got Cartmel STP on the list. Anyone who can do that after fish and chips gets a doffed cap from me. They also - and here's another thing which makes this place great - have a short but decent wine list, which we left untroubled on this occasion. If you fancy a bit of luxury, wash your fish and chips down with a chilled bottle of Gusbourne Estate English fizz, on the list yesterday for £27. You'd easily pay £23 for a bottle of that in most shops, making it the most reasonably marked up bottle I've ever seen. Which, apart from the fact that it's bloody delicious, is why we've had one a couple of times in the past.
I haven't mentioned the interior of the place yet, with all it's black and white spot-the-celeb pics (Les Dennis, Captain Picard, Tony Blair; all the greats). Nor the brisk, attentive and friendly service. Nor even the tartare sauce, a thing of wonder in itself, or their commendable approach to using sustainable fish. And not even the history of the place, going at this location since 1926, or the fact that Muhammed Ali once went past on an open-top bus, en-route to having his marriage blessed in a South Shields Mosque. But I'm sure you get the idea.
I'm taking half a point off, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, according to Kasia, who prides herself on her knowledge in these matters, the ketchup they're slinging ain't Heinz. Secondly, if it had been completely, unimprovably perfect then we'd have no reason to return. But I really want to, and will, lots of times. Because, according to me at least, it's the best.
Colmans, 176-186 Ocean Road, South Shields, NE33 2JQ
0191 1206 1202