the underground gourmet

Cheffy Chippy

Dame Summer Club gives fish and chips a major-league upgrade.

Dame Summer Club’s fish and chips. Photo: Melissa Hom

“I’d like one of everything on the menu, please,” a well-masked Underground Gourmet said to the chef (also masked) behind the counter of Dame Summer Club on Macdougal Street the other day. “One fish and chips, one fish sandwich, one tomato sandwich, a Pimm’s cup, a spritz, an Eton Mess, and, oh yes, some disco fries.” The chef, Ed Szymanski, and his partner, Patricia Howard, exchanged looks of surprise followed by glances of approval — game, as they say, recognizing game. Although the menu at DSC is short and sweet, it’s a lot of food. “You order like we do when we go out,” said the chef, before darting back to the kitchen to fry the fish.

In certain culinary circles, the one-of-everything order signals that the customer is up to something and it isn’t just old-fashioned gluttony. Off-duty cooks order too much food because they like to support their friends and colleagues or they want to check out the competition. And those who write about restaurants for a living (the U.G. included) over-order to try to see at a glance what the kitchen can do or to meet a looming deadline. The practice isn’t ideal. The best way to get to know a restaurant, of course, is over many leisurely visits. In our defense, that isn’t practical in these COVID-19 outdoor-dining-only days. After all, you never know when it’s going to rain. Or when — and this pertains especially to Macdougal Street — a gang of droopy-masked revelers will totter by demanding tequila shots. Or even when, depending on the vagaries of the city’s reopening plans and the alimentary needs and comfort level of the general public, the restaurant you’re at might suddenly morph into a grocery store, a delivery-only ghost kitchen, a food pantry, or a liquor shop. In short, you have to get it while the getting is good.

So that is what we did at Dame Summer Club, which materialized about a month ago in the borrowed storefront space of Abigail’s Kitchen. Szymanski and Howard carpeted the asphalt with Astroturf and enclosed the curbside dining area with a perimeter of planters filled with cheerful fake flowers. As its name suggests, DSC is a seasonal enterprise, but it’s not the couple’s first pop-up. Last winter, Szymanski and Howard launched the original Dame out of a Lower East Side coffee shop, where they previewed the version of casual but refined modern English cuisine they hoped to serve one day at a permanent home in the West Village. A week before they were intending to sign the restaurant lease, the city shut down. Three months later, when outdoor dining became possible, the couple decided to momentarily shelve the casually upscale style of contemporary English food that Szymanski first earned praise for at Cherry Point in Greenpoint. Instead, with simplicity and comfort in mind, not to mention counter service and takeout, they chose to showcase another side of the chef’s culinary heritage: the humble chippy, Great Britain’s claim to deep-fried, beer-battered fame.

Photo: Melissa Hom

This represented a departure for Szymanski, who has cooked at the Beatrice Inn and the Spotted Pig and who, over the course of his young career, has embarked on a crusade to disabuse the dining public of long-held clichés regarding his native cuisine — “the very gray, very brown” antithesis of what he considers modern English cooking. “I’ve always made a big point against cooking fish and chips,” he says. Had you, in fact, met him a few months ago, you might have mistaken him for the leader of some sort of anti-chip-shop movement or the head of the International Society of Chefs Against Fish & Chips. Regarding his pre-pandemic vision for the restaurant he’d hoped to open later this year, he says, “I’d try to explain to people that the London dining scene is as vibrant and diverse as the New York or Paris one — pickling, fresh produce, fermentation, all that stuff. And they would say, ‘Yeah, but you’re going to have fish and chips, right?’ And I’d say, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

Dame Summer Club’s rendition, though, is not your standard workingman’s fare. While whipping up his batter, Szymanski cuts the traditional all-purpose flour with rice flour and the standard beer batter with vodka, which on our visit yielded a superior crust — formidable but light, craggy and crisp, and a perfect foil to the flaky fish (local hake at the moment), even after Szymanski had spritzed it with a finishing mist of malt vinegar (another innovation). The accompanying chips were likewise textural marvels — fully golden and thick enough to deserve the British “chips” designation but as crisp as the slinkiest French frite.

Which is not to suggest that Szymanski isn’t a supporter of underrated textures like “soggy,” a fact proved by our order of Monty’s Disco Fries, a mass of chips fearlessly doused in cheese sauce and curry sauce, drizzled with chive oil, and sprinkled with scallions. A little bit Anglo-Indian, a little bit New Jersey diner, it’s a gloopy stroke of brilliance that just may upstage the main event.

In the not-fish-or-chips department, the tomato sandwich with Campo Rosso Farm lettuce, housemade mayo, and optional bacon was a delicious exposition of salty, fatty, tangy goodness on a toasted brioche bun, and also an unbelievable mess. To eat one, you need a roll of Bounty and a lobster bib, unless you don’t mind looking like someone who just finished competing in the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest.

To wash it all down, the English and Italian-inspired cocktails we tried hit the spot. And so did Szymanski’s take on an Eton Mess, which layered custardlike posset, Chantilly cream, and Greenmarket berries at their juicy peak.

Dame Summer Club has already found its crowd, including English expats who make a daily ritual of stopping by for a taste of home. “We have people who come for Pimm’s every single day or the Eton Mess,” says Howard. By happenstance, the partners find themselves operating not far from a British food epicenter several blocks north, anchored by grocer Myers of Keswick, the pioneering Tea & Sympathy, and A Salt & Battery, which Szymanski considers the closest New York comes to an authentic British chippy. Now that he has come around to the charms of a well-made fish and chips, he has adopted the philosophy of the more the better. “When we run out of food,” he says, “I send people there.

*This article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Dame Summer Club Gives Fish and Chips a Major-League Upgrade