Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Tom Parker Bowles and olive reader Steph Tait try out North London’s Black Axe Mangal
Tom Parker Bowles is a food writer and restaurant critic for The Mail on Sunday. His latest cookbook Let’s Eat Meat is out now. (£25, Pavilion)
Steph Tait lives in Southwest London and eats out twice a week. Her favourite meal is a traditional roast. Indeed, alongside Korean chicken wings and crispy duck hirata buns at Flesh & Buns, her best eating experience was Hawksmoor’s Sunday roast beef.
Black Axe Mangal is the kind of place that comes along rarely: the result of a chef’s singular passion, but one that combines a deep love of a specific cuisine that adapts to its context. In this case, a patch of small, independent restaurants in Highbury Corner, North London.
It’s what you might call ‘death metal Turkish barbecue’ but that would belie the complexity of chef/owner Lee Tiernan’s training at St. John Bread and Wine, and the experience he gained in piloting the Black Axe Mangal concept as a pop-up in Copenhagen.
With a name like Black Axe Mangal, you might expect heavy metal attitude, and hard rock sneer. Instead, the service here is warm, charming and heartfelt. Just after we order, a bottle of Jameson appears, and we’re poured three shots. We thank them, and ask why? ‘It’s a present, as you chose the entire menu,’ beams our waiter. It’s that sort of place. *I was recognised as I know Lee Tiernan from his St. John Bread and Wine days.
Black Axe Mangal is tiny, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in personality. The bold menu is short and unusual. Service was good, but nosedived when our bill was planted on our table after an hour and a half. We hadn’t asked for it, there were a couple of empty tables and no visible queue, but our time seemed to be up.
Bread is the star here, baked in a vast, black, wood-fired oven decorated with Gene Simmons and the rest of the Kiss gang. Its Turkish pide arrives covered with a layer of kid offal, rich and cumin scented, with a slight whiff of the farmyard, as we’d hoped.
Then more bread, this time with pumpkin, an ingredient I’d usually cross the road to avoid. Here, though, it’s mixed with pickled chilli and walnuts, giving not only autumnal succour, but a wonderful texture.
It’s not all bread. Hell no. Creamy, delicately salted, smoked cod’s roe comes with giant, freshly made crisps. Kale and romesco salad is crisp, sharp and sweet, cutting a scimitar-like swathe through all that meaty heft.
The flavours here are turned up to 11. The Mission doner makes the lips tingle and the heart leap. Soft lumps of pig cheek are dotted with shards of scallop. The result sits between American ’cue and something from the depths of a Sichuan menu. Astounding.
Then Hispi cabbage. A whole cabbage is thrown in the wood oven, with what tastes like shrimp paste. It’s wonderfully mellow and seductive. Quietly thrilling too. Rather like Black Axe Mangal.
We started with the century egg, cod’s roe and crispy pig’s ear; a green and brown half-egg that tasted run-of-the mill hard-boiled but with a jellied consistency, complemented by crunchy matchsticks of crackling. We followed with flatbread covered in puréed squash, chopped walnuts and spring onion, an unusually delicious mix of textures. My guest equally enjoyed the mussels, bacon, scallop and chilli, but was less impressed at me ploughing into her share of the flatbread.
The Bäkken special arrived – brilliantly charred lamb chops served with lentils and silky roasted peppers. To off-set the meltingly rich fat of the lamb, we plumped for falafel, roast garlic and tarragon kebab: crisp falafel wrapped in the delicious bread with pickled chilli added a welcome kick and requisite cut-through acidity – I wish we’d ordered two.
Squeamishly, we gave the offal options a wide berth, though the popularity of the lamb offal flatbread and The Mission Chinese doner was obvious with a glance around the restaurant. Four of the 10 dishes on the menu were vegetarian-friendly. I drank red wine (only one option with no description) from a tumbler and my friend went for whiskey sours. There were no desserts: *keeps calm*.
The bottom line
The room is tiny, cramped and we wait an hour for a table. It’s the sort of place I hate. But Black Axe Mangal is a masterpiece: a place where technique, woodsmoke and imagination combine to create something unique. For those about to rock, we salute you. Bill was £117 for three, including service
Food 9/10; atmosphere 9/10; service 10/10; Tom’s total 28/30
The food is really great (and cheap). The wood-fired oven fosters great expectation that’s fulfilled at first bite of that charred, pillowy flatbread. Hawaiian tablecloths, umbrellas in drinks and communal seating make for a fun night… as long as you don’t mind paying the bill after an hour and a half. Bill was £121.00 for two, including service
Food 8/10; atmosphere 7/10; service 6/10; Steph’s total 21/30
Food Made Good rating 6/10
All meat at Black Axe Mangal is British and Lee Tiernan goes to great lengths to ensure the farmers he’s sourcing it from share his values. Seafood, too, is carefully sourced: River Exe mussels, line-caught mackerel, and the use of hake and pollock demonstrate a chef who cares as much about what’s left in the sea as what’s on his menu. A flood of customers in the opening month means there hasn’t been time to put many social or environmental initiatives in place, but the restaurant is recycling, and staff are trained in water and energy efficiency.
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