The Meanderthals

There’s something fishy (and cheesy) about this place

No self-respecting fish would be caught dead on one of Fish & Co.’s skillet/dinner plates.

While the idea of using a frying pan as the final resting place for fare at Phnom Penh’s new seafood restaurant is quaint, appropriate and gimmicky, the notion of stuffing cheese into a gorgeous filet of flaky white fish is like imbuing a fine chardonnay with chili peppers. Or spooning a helping of mint jelly inside a lamb chop before grilling. Or inserting pickles into a tuna sandwich before eating it.

Why on earth would you do such a thing?

What results basically doesn’t make sense, confuses the palate and turns a nice dish into a gummy, cloying mass of cholesterol which at a price point of $13.95 will annoy your wallet while baffling your taste buds.

Cheese is an oft-utilized complement to fish and should remain as such – used with restraint, gently and with care. Somewhere along the line, some kitchen wizard  in this Singapore-based chain’s trial kitchen decided to practice culinary taxidermy on Fish & Co.’s menu choices and stuff its fish with a confusing and illogical array of cheeses, perhaps to justify the absurdly high prices. 

Hence, anything with a fin would cry foul over being stuffed like a turkey, flopped aside a mountain of french fries and delivered to the table to overwhelm the latest customer – albeit in a charming personal frying pan. 

Five of us dined at Fish & Co. on a recent Friday evening, and it felt like we had been transported into a Quentin Tarantino set amid filming of a restaurant showdown scene. From the shell- and starfish-festooned walls, to the odd circle-shaped soffit lighting holes with sky scenes painted within, to the thankfully subdued Cambodian cover band which butchered western cover songs while the chef was abusing the fish, Fish & Co. clearly has its lines out of the water, its boat and staff a few feet short of the pier and in very choppy waters.

Many new restaurants in Cambodian struggle in the early going, as chefs labor to hit stride and service staff find their centers as they try to figure out how to get food out of the kitchen and in front of their customers efficiently, deliciously and in a coordinated fashion. Failures abound and we are often treated to comedic and frenzied displays of service showmanship as the locals turn themselves inside out to get it right.

Our table was subjected to a manic display of “all hands on deck but don’t anybody do anything,” which resulted in orders being taken out of sequence by different people (drinks, too, further complicated by the late arrival of an additional friend who only stayed for one tequila sunrise, which took so long to prepare it was nearly a sunset by the time it arrived at the table.) Normally this would amuse us, eliciting a comment of support for the poor kids trying to get the wrinkles out of their service aprons and a word of encouragement and understanding on a busy night.

But with only two other tables occupied, the eight waitstaff provided a keystone-cop quality routine worthy of the next comedy night at Pontoon.

“May I please have some ketchup” sent one waiter flying to the service station for the stuff, only to confer excitedly with a colleague and then disappear into the kitchen for a year and a half. Half of my French fries went without their favorite condiment before he emerged, flustered but with five small containers of ketchup which he tentatively distributed. 

What arrived in the pans was accurately described on the glib menu, obviously written for entertainment value and oriented at the younger set (think Denny’s meets Chuck E Cheese). Everyone is apparently so chipper at Fish & Co. that the text oozes happiness, friendship and interesting colloquial facts (who knew that fish and chips was actually created by a Jew?)

But the food defies logic and challenges the notion that good, simple food ought to endure any amplification, adjustment or complements.

The New York fish and chips arrive jammed with a slice of parmegiano reggiano, New York apparently having adopted Italy’s most famous cheese to distinguish its version of English fish and chips. There was a Danish version, too, with mozzarella adding to the menu mysteries as it coos to diners: “How about stuffing our fish and chips with stringy mozzarella cheese and spice in that lightly battered fish and topped with lemon butter sauce.” How about NOT, people? 

But there’s more,  a Swiss adaptation with gruyere cheese substituting garlic lemon butter sauce for the lemon butter sauce, as if anyone could tell the difference. 

The Italian version invited customers to join in the fun. “Let’s do a tomato twist! Chili flakes and mozzarella cheese stuffed into our best fish and chips and topped with our homemade tomato sauce.” Unless Mama Leone is on loan to this Singaporean chain, Fish & Co.’s “homemade tomato sauce” is as likely as not a plastic bag-enclosed elixir  of dubious quality. (Disclaimer in the spirit of honesty: I really don’t know this to be true as I did not try this dish. In the further spirit of honesty, I never will. If I am wrong in this assumption I sincerely apologize and will send alert readers a complimentary supply of antacids to offset the effects of this food.)

I furiously flipped through the menu pages, seeking a simple and proper English fish and chips – fat chance for mushy peas. There! “The Best Fish and Chips in Town”, and at $10.95 the most reasonably priced on this menu. I read the description: “The best in town! Coated with a light and crispy batter topped with our signature lemon butter sauce.”

Wait. Butter sauce? Gaaaaa! What’s with these guys and their penchant for overcomplicating (and overpricing) something that is by its historical and gastronomical essential nature fairly simple? And what decent chef would name a lemon and butter sauce it’s “signature” accoutrement? Pas moi, but then I am just a layman scribe and erstwhile chef. Besides, I don’t have a glib copywriter gussying up my swill for mass consumption.

Still, I was here to eat and so turned the pan so the handle wasn’t poking me in the chest and launched into the serving.

Edging into the smaller end of the New York fish and chips was a pleasant surprise: my first bite was delightful. Light, flaky white fish coddled in a light, crunchy battered crust. Delicious. My second bite was like biting into a cheesecake and encountering a slice of ham (“What’s THIS doing in here?”) as my fork came back with a thick glom of cheese swaddling the poor fish.

Having been disturbed, the promised parmegiano exploded from the fish’s gullet like a ruptured volcanic fault, overwhelming the poor filet with a lactose-laden blast of cheese-lava flavor which overwhelmed the fish’s premier billing and rendered it the condiment in a peculiar inverted fish fondue.

In my years as a restaurant reviewer (I hardly consider myself a cuisine critic, though I know my way around good food and wine, consider myself fairly well travelled and am an evolving cook of some credentials in own right), I was taught to find something genuinely good to say about even the worst meal, so here it is.

The fries are fantastic. Order a double serving and leave some of the cheese-stuffed fish behind.

One more thing about Fish & Co. If you’re going with a group ignore their promise to accept credit cards (they gave me a hard time about mine, as the signature on the card didn’t precisely match the one on the bill, eliciting a frantic audit by the entire staff even after I produced identification). Take cash. You’ll need to visit an ATM to load up, as this hopelessly touristy chain is as more about emptying your wallet than anything vaguely about good food.

If you’re fishing for a decent fish and chips in Phnom Penh that’s worthy of Old Blighty, keep going past Fish & Co.and check in at The Green Vespa or Paddy Rice. You’ll get the real thing there at a lesser price. 

And without the cheese.

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