The almighty cod himself couldn’t produce a battered fish as good as Olley’s Fish Experience.
Walking in I’m greeted by waitress extraordinaire Carol Haughton and shown to one of the many little cabin-like tables. The navy chic decor creates the impression of a seaside pub crossed with a captain’s quarterdeck.
Big menus are waiting for me on the table, but before I can lick a perched lip, Carol is offering advice on the wine selection.
A bold Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand perhaps? Or maybe a crisp Italian Pinot Grigio?
Just as I am about to order I notice a little gap in the menu with little Union flags and capitalised text announcing the imminent arrival of a new “British Wine Selection”.
Owner Harry Niazi swoops in. He said: “We’re bringing in some great British wine to go with the famous British dish, fish and chips.
“But we haven’t quite got all the bottles in yet.”
Still, Harry has one of the last remaining tester bottles left in the back that I can preview before the full selection is rolled out in the coming months.
He hurries away and is back in a flash, grinning with a bottle of red wine in his hands.
I don’t know a huge amount about wine, but one thing I do know, is that you drink white wine with fish.
“You’re thinking that red wine doesn’t go with fish, aren’t you?” Harry said still grinning, “give this wine a try.” He presents me with the bottle. It’s a pinot noir from the The Bolney Estate in Sussex.
He said: “It’s beautifully light. It doesn’t overpower the fish. It’s perfect. You have to try it.”
Harry pops the cork just as Marina, a friend of mine from our university days, enters the restaurant. He guides her to her plaice and pours us two healthy glasses. We act out the usual wine tasting theatre. Swirl the glass, give it a sniff, sling it back.
From then on the pinot noir is like a trusty shipmate keeping us company on our culinary expedition at Olley’s.
For starters we have three dishes, a prawn cocktail, king prawns and mussels. The prawn cocktail sauce is specially home-made, Carol tells us. This is welcome news. But the best part for me is the cream, white wine and shallot sauce that both the prawns and mussels come in. Sometimes something is so good you can use it twice.
Our plates are whisked away and we float on to the main course. Carol comes to take our order. Marina goes for the cod while my greedy eyes fall on the Cilla Black Experience, named after the order created by the Liverpudlian legend who came to the restaurant when she was filming a show called The Moment of Truth.
A thick piece of fresh haddock, three hearty king prawns, three scampi, onions and a mountain of Olley’s famous thick chips. I can’t imagine the modern starlet having such an appetite.
The haddock is sensational. Harry, a true afishionado, has travelled up and down the country tasting Britain’s best catches and he says Whitby is where you will find the finest haddock. Well, Olley’s must be the best south of the Yorkshire Moors then.
Olley’s started in 1987 as a little takeaway. After a decade of that, Harry decided to scale up and knocked a hole into the next door building, creating the restaurant.
Since then it has been a staple of the South London restaurant scene. Marina and I are happily filled after the main courses are dealt with.
“Room for a small desert?” Carol said, popping in to remove the plates.
We look sheepishly at the desert menu. “Well, a little sticky toffee pudding wouldn’t be so bad,” I say like Winnie the Pooh eyeing the last of the honey.
Carol is off to place the order before we can say “two scoops of vanilla ice cream”.
The pudding is gloriously gluttonous. At first, we politely take little spoonfuls from the shared bowl, but soon enough metal is clinking as we joust over the final scoops.
After this we are well and truly full and we roll out into the crisp night.
Calum Fraser was a guest of Olley’s Fish Experience, 65-69 Norwood Road, Herne Hill,
SE24 9AA. Open from noon. Call 020 8671 8259. https://www.olleys.info/