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Gordon Ramsay gets half of it right at his Fish & Chips at the Wharf

The line at lunchtime at Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips at the Wharf. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)

It’s tempting to poke a target as big as Gordon Ramsay, to unleash a little Anton Ego on a brand known for dressing down fellow restaurateurs. News that the British chef, cookbook author and TV personality rolled out a fast-casual fish shop, the first of two concepts at the newly expanded Wharf in Southwest Washington, found some of us fighting to keep an open mind. Would Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips be another attempt by an outside force to cash in on their name in a world capital, or would it add something distinctive to the dining scene, one of America’s best?

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I trek to the $3.6 billion development on a recent Saturday, paying way too much for parking and joining a queue that extends more than a block, underscoring the curiosity surrounding the demanding, loo-mouthed chef. To ease the stress for the staff, Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips posts an attendant at the entrance who admits customers as space inside allows. The sentry is the opposite of a doorman at a hot club, as cheerful and reassuring as the storefront’s blue-and-red color scheme, a crown tip to the Union Jack. Inside, the chippy, opened in October, gleams like a new car. The air smells of fresh cooking oil. Promising signs.

It’s my turn at the counter, backed by a big red menu that requires a few quick decisions. My debut request starts with fish and chips, of course, but also fried shrimp, a fish sandwich, several sauces for dunking, wine from a can and (oh, why not?) a sticky toffee shake. I stake out a stool at a counter whose window faces an umbrella-shaded patio and the waterfront beyond.

The wait for my order takes a few minutes longer than at your garden variety fast-food stop, which gives me time to people watch and take in some scenery. “Is there any way to order before you come here?” an impatient customer asks the attendant at the door, where the line is growing by the yard every minute. (There’s not.) Within eye shot of Fish & Chips is the forthcoming Hell’s Kitchen, inspired by Ramsay’s reality TV show. (Expect beef Wellington and sit-down service.)

My number is called, and I pick up my order from a kitchen counter and waste no time plucking a piece of hot fish from atop a heap of “dirty,” or dressed, chips. The batter on the cod is … a revelation, not an armor but a light gold jacket reminiscent of good tempura, all delicate crunch and audible crackle. The sheen on my fingers reminds me it’s fried food, but there are no drops of oil anywhere.

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Key ingredients in the crust are rice flour and pastry cream powder, Ramsay shared in an email to The Post. “We worked on the batter for about three months, keeping in mind fish & chips is largely takeaway and many guests may not sit and eat their meal immediately.” His aim was to get something close to the tempura he has experienced in Japan and across Asia, a style that would “hold its integrity after the cook,” upward of 20 minutes. In three visits, I never took food out from here; like pizza, fish and chips are best eaten on the spot. But even as the steaming pieces of cod cooled, the crust never went limp.

My fingers move on to a couple fries scattered with crumbled chorizo, cotija cheese, jalapeño, onions and herbs. One of a trio of “dirty” chip selections, these don’t register as English, but they’re compelling in the way that messy food — nachos, poutine, seven-layer bean dip — can be. For better or worse, the fries are almost lost in the kitchen sink of toppings. When I later try them “natural” — with nothing to get in the way of their performance — they reveal themselves as miscast for the job. They bend where you might want them to break, and carry the flavor of fridge more than field. My suspicions are confirmed when I lean over the kitchen counter and ask a cook if the chips are made there. “Uh, we make the dirty ones here,” she says, meaning the kitchen adds their toppings.

There are good frozen fries on the market. These are not them.

Dips to the rescue! I have yet to meet a sauce I wouldn’t be happy to repeat, although the richness of fish and chips finds me asking for repeats of Ramsay’s brassy tartar sauce, horseradish-lit cocktail sauce and aioli torched with sriracha. The combination of curry and mango is a bright (and fruity) moment, too.

One of the great things about living in Washington is access to people from all over the world. If I ever want to know how a foreign dish should taste on its home turf, I can reach out to knowledgeable types from the myriad embassies, the State Department, the World Bank — even rank-and-file eaters from abroad.

Meet my chum Anthony Lacey, an editor for a local nonprofit organization and the blogger behind Dining With Strangers, in which Lacey invites random people to a meal and interviews them. Lacey grew up eating fish and chips in his native U.K. and considers the gold standard back home a place called (ha!) Frydays, in the village of Anlaby, outside of Hull and near the North Sea. While his preferred fish is haddock and he grew up mixing ketchup and vinegar — yes, he knows salt and vinegar is the classic condiment — Lacey opens his mind when he joins me on my final tour of the menu.

The Brit gives a thumbs-up to the batter (“No drops of oil!”), praising the crust for its crunch and its hold on the cod. The rainbow of sauces is more than he’d find across the pond, but that’s a good thing, he says, asking if I want any more of the sticky toffee shake, because otherwise he’d love to finish it. We come together again over the same-size chips — “airport” fries, Lacey says, as he inspects their mealy white centers.

Both of us agree the shrimp is sweet and springy and the fried chicken is a why bother. Ramsay says he offers chicken in the interest of mass appeal (“I think we all love fried chicken!”), but the one time I bite, the awesome exterior — the crust — gives way to a dry middle.

Perhaps you want a sandwich. The shop cradles its fish and chicken, along with shredded lettuce, diced tomato and avocado cream, in lightly grilled naan. The bread makes a good wrap, more pillow than sandbag. The naan also keeps the focus on the filling.

Canned wine? Remember, you’re eating fast food. Take your pick from a rosé or sauvignon blanc, both from Kim Crawford in New Zealand and respectable quaffs. That said, $12 a tin makes me think someone should be pouring it for me, and into glass rather than plastic. I suppose you could go the shake route with your lunch or dinner, but for me, they qualify as dessert. With a dedicated sweet tooth, my man Lacey doesn’t leave a drop of the sticky toffee pudding shake, every slurp as decadent as that sounds. I’m partial to the relatively lighter Biscoff shake, its crown of whipped topping sprinkled with the spiced cookie, ubiquitous in Europe, that lends its name to the confection.

When your menu is just a handful of things, you need to ace every detail. Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips nails the former, misses the latter and does well enough by the rest of the experience to explain any line outside.

Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips

665 Wharf St. SW. 771-444-5590. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining and takeout 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Sandwiches and combination plates $15 to $19. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms. Pandemic protocols: Neither masks nor vaccinations are required of staff.