The Food Standards Agency keeps us safe, but it is also for nerds. Yes: ensuring the places you eat in abide by basic hygiene laws, to the extent that your food doesn't disgust or poison or kill you, is broadly "a good thing". But also: a five-star rating system based on how many times you clean your surfaces and how few rats live in your kitchen? For nerds, sorry. Thanks, FSA, for keeping my large intestine parasite-free! But god, do you have to be such nerds about it.
Nowhere is the FSA's iron fist more evident than London, a neoliberal Atlantis which every day tilts further off its muddy foundations into a stream of its own polluted green piss. London has almost 40,000 food selling establishments, and as such a fair number of them boasts the hallowed 0 (zero) rank on the FSA's five-star system.
Four years ago, Hannah Ewens ate at so many of these 0-rated spots in one day that it turned her fully vegan. But I wanted to take it up a notch. What if I could shit myself to death? What if I could eat something so filthy, so dangerous, it was close to being a kink? What does 0-star shellfish taste like? Titillatingly naughty, like a bus-stop kebab? Or powerfully laxativious, like that time you had bad pork on a camping trip? Does a bad hygiene rating have to mean bad food?
There was only one way to find out: put as much of it into my mouth as possible.
POSSIBLE DANGERS OF 0-STAR FISH:
– Repeated vomiting
– Difficulty breathing
– Acute abdominal pain
– Possible anaphylactic reaction
– Larvae in ur shit
Weirdly, a quick glance at the FSA's listing of London’s zero-rated fish restaurants showed that quite a few of them were actually respectable (i.e. expensive) establishments with generally high scores on TripAdvisor. I was expecting dives and shitholes and places with cigarette butts on their tiled floors, but actually we were running the gamut from those places, yes, to actually nice restaurants with chandeliers and carpets and that. Truly, you can get a parasite in your stomach from anywhere.
And so to Barry's Fish Bar, the only fish bar run by someone called Barry with a zero-hygiene rating from the FSA, situated on Devons Road in Bow, E3. And hey man, I'm not here to fuck on people's businesses. I'm not really here to "fuck on" anything, just to eat some officially unhygienic seafood and maybe die in a shower of violent effluvium. But this place was not up there when it comes to the chippies I've set foot in during my life, and if you know me you'll know I've set foot in a fair few dodgy ones in my time (if you don't know me, just look at me: I have that look).
The cod here looked like a battered sock, so I ordered the sock and some scampi as well, which – thankfully, I think, as the kitchen was genuinely giving off the smell of a newborn fart (which I've never, ever experienced from any kitchen or food before in my life???) – needed to be freshly cooked.
Yet, even though the sock was so greasy it turned two layers of chippy wrapping translucent, flavour-wise, it tasted no worse than any other battered sock I've eaten in my life, and if you know me you’ll know I’ve tasted a fair few battered socks in my time.
The scampi were so hot that they just scalded both the roof of my mouth and my tongue, so I didn't have to taste whatever they tasted like, which is good, because the actual fish part of them looked like a paler, greyer version of what comes out of my nose after a weekend spent staring into the mirror.
I: fully agree with the FSA's rating.
Onwards, and ahoy landlubbers, it be Bonnie Gull's Seafood Shack, Soho branch! An establishment that's rated 4.5/5 on Tripadvisor, 4.6/5 on Google, and rated so highly by food critic Grace Dent that during her review for the Evening Standard (ES) she complained in a jokey way to her dining companion that it was so fucking good she will "have to tell everyone about it in ES and then they'll all want to come here and I'll never get in again until March".
And yet: the FSA warns that it contains shit-yourself material, because it's rated 0/5 for food hygiene. Also, because it serves raw oysters, there is a slim-to-medium-slim possibility – as with anywhere that sells raw oysters, to be fair – that it could give me "vibrio vulnificus", a "potentially deadly" and "flesh eating" virus that can cause "blistering skin lesions" which may require "limb amputations". Shiver me timbers!
I also really hate oysters, so – because I wanted to heighten my chances of getting paralytic, amnesic, neurotoxic or diarrheic shellfish poisoning – I ordered crab legs with lemon mayonnaise, because if I'm going to die with "tingling and numbness in fingers, toes, around lips, tongue, mouth and throat" and a "burning sensation or pain on contact with cold water", then I'm at least going to do it with a smile on my face.
Unfortunately, I didn't experience any of that. This place was the exact kind of place you'd expect to get beaming ES reviews: welcoming mood lighting, satisfyingly neat interior design, polished glass, cutlery, smiles and service. They even gave me free sparkling water; it was so fucking posh. Yet, according to the FSA, it needed "necessary improvement" to its hygienic food handling, "urgent improvement" in the cleanliness and condition of facilities and building, and "major improvement" to its "management of food safety".
These people might have disorganised fridges, but the food really slapped. So I was conflicted. Full of crabs, and conflicted.
It was 1–1 so far, so to see once and for all who was correct – the FSA's fusty idea of cleanliness, or the more interpretive, free-wheeling concept of human taste – I took to our final restaurant, Sakana. Up until now, I was yet to shit myself inside-out, but I had high hopes for this unassuming sushi restaurant on Commercial Street.
Googling as I waited for my food, I learned that the raw fish found in sushi in particular can cause "anisakiasis", which is when "tiny parasitic worms bury into the gut of a human host". In some cases, the worms can cause an "anaphylactic" reaction, triggering an "erratic heartbeat", leading to "respiratory failure" and, ultimately, "death".
You don't get any more raw than a plate of uncooked tuna, salmon and sea bream! So that's what I ate, waiting patiently for a worm inside my heart to do a half-turn and for me to – suddenly, abruptly – pitch head-first into my soy sauce and die.
Sadly, for me and for content, that didn't happen: the food tasted great, the atmosphere was lovely and if I didn't know that I was 4/5ths more likely to get "stomach cramps", "fever" and "a bunch of worms living inside me", I would have happily gulped it all down without a care in the world. But I did know, so every bite was sort of tinged with that.
So what have we learnt? Well, 24 hours later, I haven't yet died, so that's good. Googling "effects of bad sushi" directly before eating sushi is not the best idea. And, well, not everything that glitters in the rarefied London food world is as gold as we might think, even if it still tastes amazing.
But you can die doing anything, really – you might get hit by a bus! There's no food standards agency for that! – so may as well eat your deep-fried socks, your questionable sushi and your crabs' legs in peace.