Kebabs are just the beginning, not the end
Black Axe Mangal advertises itself as an avant-garde kebab house drawing influences from around the world, not just from Turkey. But while the chargrilled meat dishes take centre stage on Black Axe’s ever-changing menu, the skill of the kitchen expresses itself in ways not confined to the meaty arts.
One can’t write about Black Axe Mangal without mentioning its unique décor and atmosphere. The giant Turkish-style bread oven is decorated with a mural of the band Kiss. Metal and classic rock makes up most of the soundtrack, but it’s played at a sensible volume that doesn’t drown out your own sanity. Meanwhile the floor, as you come through the door, has been adorned with paintings of fire-spurting cocks. It won’t suit everyone, but if you have a sense of whimsy then it’s all a whole lot of fun.
First things first
The heart of many of Black Axe Mangal’s dishes is Turkish-style pide. The bread was uniformly soft and fluffy across all my visits with a touch of elasticity and a hint of charred smoke. It’s easily good enough to rival the best that Green Lanes, and even Turkey itself, have to offer.
The lamb offal pide topped this delightful bread with a heap of unidentifiable meat that wasn’t improved by the so-so spicy sauce and sour cream. Still, the tart and sharp sauerkraut was a saving grace.
While the lamb offal was a poor start, the BAM giro made up for it in spades. The pide here was topped with thin slices of lamb cooked rare. Although lacking the earthiness that I was expecting and not quite as superlative as the lamb sometimes available at The Newman Arms, these slices of baby sheep were still superb. Tender and a touch chewy with occasional hints of charred smoke, they went down especially well with the crisp chunks of roasted potato, sour cream and lettuce. It’s less a kebab and more a Sunday roast in compact form, although the chewiness of the lamb prevented me from eating it whole like a sandwich.
Going back for seconds
Although the Turkish-style bread used in the Welsh rarebit was just as good as ever, I was less convinced by the uninspiring melted cheese on top and by the overbearing sharpness of the onions.
The Bakken Special allegedly uses mutton shoulder and shank but the meat, while tender, was barely identifiable as such. The dish was almost unbearably sweet too with lots of peppers, but the edge was blunted by the sharp onions and a dab of creamy yoghurt. Of all of Black Axe Mangal’s dishes that I tried, this was the one that felt the most amateurish and unbalanced.
Three is the magic number
If the Welsh rarebit was an underwhelming disappointment, then the roasted garlic flatbread was a pleasant and very welcome surprise. The same top-notch bread as before was topped with garlic strong enough to leave me with moderately stinky breath. A punchier garlic puree would’ve been even better, but it still went down a treat – especially with the sliced jalapeno peppers and punchy chopped herbs.
If there’s one dish that could become my dish of the year that it would have to be the pig cheek, scallop and chilli. Slightly chewy cheek and crunchy pork rinds provided the meatiness, while dried and then rehydrated scallops provided an intensely strong salty hit which was emphasised by the prickly, searing heat of the chilli oil. It was a stunning combination that bowled me over – heat, salt, meat and seafood zing all in one.
The oddly named Mission Chinese wing spice doner tastes far better than its name would have you think. The pide here was topped with tender, occasionally fatty strips of lamb. The clincher was the dusting of peppery, umami and tart Chinese five spice powder. Combining lamb doner meat with five spice is such boldly flavoursome genius, it makes me wonder why no one has done it before. The only caveat is that its heaviness cries out for something refreshing to cut through it all – the shreds of lettuce present certainly weren’t up to the job. A labneh might have done it. Still, this dish is sheer deranged delightful genius.
Go fourth and multiply
The Chinese influences continued in the century egg. Unexpectedly creamy and light, the egg was far from the slap-in-your-face saltiness that I’d usually expect from century egg. It was surprisingly delicate too which, along with its creaminess, went well with the lip-smackingly moreish cream and the crunchy dried anchovies which resembled Chinese seafood-flavoured crackers. But in a good way.
The cabbage salad was essentially coleslaw but without the mayo. The firm slices of cabbage included glossy cellophane-like sheets which were refreshing enough.
Black Axe Mangal topped its corn-on-the-cob with butter that had been laced with a hint of smoke and some delightfully salty yet light salmon roe. I only wish that there had been more of the butter to spread all over the cob.
One of Black Axe Mangal’s few dishes that doesn’t involve some part of an animal is the falafel. Apparently made from broad beans rather than the usual chickpeas, the somewhat crunchy and nutty balls weren’t quite as consistently fluffy and soft as the best chickpea-based falafels. Even so, they were still very pleasing – especially when taken with the milky and surprisingly wispy goat’s cheese and the nutty, sweet squash puree.
The thin glossy slices of beetroot layered on top like Kraft cheese were attractive, if not very earthy. They instead had a fleeting cardamom-esque taste that was beguiling if ultimately too faint to be of much consequence.
Not everything at Black Axe Mangal is a winner, but when the kitchen gets it right the dishes soar to new heights. The small space means both the tables and the stools at the counter can be cramped. Plus the service across all of my visits was a bit wobbly and slow. But all of this can be forgiven. Black Axe Mangal easily outclasses the far more traditional and po-faced Babaji Pide and is unique in its eclectic and delicious sense of fun. It’s an example of what makes eating out in London so glorious – if that doesn’t count as a glowing recommendation, then I don’t know what does.
Name: Black Axe Mangal
Address: 156 Canonbury Road, London N1 2UP
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 18.00-22.30. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Reservations: none taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £30 approx.