Black Axe Mangal, 156 Canonbury Road, London N1 2UP (blackaxemangal.com). Small plates £6-10.50; large plates £15-24; desserts £6-7.50; wines from £30
One day in 1994, while waiting for his new restaurant to open, chef Fergus Henderson went to the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead along with all the other food pervs, for a screening of La Grande Bouffe. At one point the louche dinner party guests, working hard to eat themselves to death, sit around licking the marrow from roasted bones. As Henderson once told me, a lightbulb illuminated above his head. “I thought, there’s a dish for me.” He added a parsley salad, a heap of salt and some toasted sourdough, and created one of the single most copied plates of food of the last quarter century, and rightly so. The shiny gems of marrow melt into the sturdy platform of the toast. A flake or two of salt makes it sing. The bright, acidic parsley salad cuts through the richness.
I’ve eaten knock-offs all over the world, often made by chefs who’ve never eaten the original but seen enough pictures to know the principles are sound. And now, 25 years later, I am sitting in Black Axe Mangal in London’s Highbury, eating a pimped version, with go-faster stripes, an aerofoil, a paint job and something involving fuel injection under the hood. The marrow has been topped with a tangle of long-braised oxtail, to literally put some meat back on the bones. It has then been roasted to a crisp. Anchovy is involved. The sourdough has been replaced with a slab of fluffy, singed and blistered flatbread, which belches hot doughy air as you tear. On the side, beneath a thick mustardy vinaigrette, is a candy-coloured red onion and parsley salad.
It’s a comically huge plate of food, which slaps you round the chops and slaps you again just to be sure. And then shouts in your ear and finally kicks you in the shins. Even so the lily has not been gilded. Black Axe Mangal’s Lee Tiernan spent years as the head chef of St John Bread and Wine, the spin-off from the mothership, and cooked the original more than enough times to understand the fundamentals. But clearly it had to be his take. This very much is.
None of this is news, in the sense of being new. BAM, as it calls itself onomatopoeically, first opened nearly four years ago and all the reports were of huge flavours and noise and queues. You went. You waited, perhaps for an hour or more. You sat in a cramped space with room for just two dozen, with an open kitchen dominated by a graffitied wood-fired oven. Tatted cooks did muscular things with the good food. Guitars roared, cocktails flowed and everybody got sweaty and fed. It sounded like a hoot – just not necessarily my hoot.
Three years on, and circumstance presents an opportunity. I have been let down by a new restaurant which cancelled its opening and forgot to mention it. Charmed, I’m sure. So I head with my companion to Highbury Corner where I know there are choices. One is Trullo, which I have already reviewed. (And very nice it is too.) One of them is closed, because it’s a Monday. Which leaves BAM and, praise be, they have a table. The music does indeed boom, though not so you can’t hold a conversation. Still, if you fret about restaurant noise, you won’t enjoy this. That’s fine. There are plenty of other places for the likes of you.
If you’re not sure, take the risk. Come let the food rattle your eyeballs. Tiernan (who happens not to be here tonight) has described BAM as a mash-up of bistro and the Turkish mangal grill houses he so adores. The menu changes according to what’s good. Tonight, it starts with a “crispy fuckin rabbit” with sweet chilli and apple. The meat has been slow cooked, formed into a pleasing rectangle, then breaded and deep fried. It is indeed very crisp and very meaty and surfs a wave of sultry heat and sweet courtesy of the slutty sauce it sits upon.
A salt beef and sauerkraut steamed bun is essentially a Reuben sandwich with new tailoring. It sits inside an Asian-style rice-dough folded bao, the softness of which gives way to a thick wodge of the cured meat and the crunch sour of the fermented cabbage. We have robust spears of green asparagus under a dollop of creamy goat’s curd. Because the kitchen doesn’t understand the word “enough” there’s also bottarga – cured fish roe (usually grey mullet) grated over the top. It provides a rush of savoury and the sea.
A short while ago the food-writing world, or the “gutserati” as I’ve just decided to name them, laughed uproariously at the opening of a new restaurant called Flavour Bastard, as though that was ever going to fly. The website now just carries the petulant words “Flavour Bastard has now shut and will not reopen.” If any restaurant ever deserved to inherit the name as a subtitle, it’s BAM.
Not every dish works. A salad of brown shrimp and white cabbage is meant, I think, to be a way of contrasting the nutty bite of the tiny seafood commas against the brusque crunch of the cabbage, but the dressing is salty and one-note. Still, with the small plates priced at around £8, it feels like an affordable misstep. I’m disappointed that the crispy pig cheek, kimchi and burnt lime is finished because they sound like words I could be terrific friends with. Happily, there’s a huge Barnsley chop, the fat-ribboned lamb having taken a virtuous journey through the flames alongside charred hispi cabbage, all of it bathed in the warm benediction of shrimp butter.
There are just two desserts tonight: a mango lassi sorbet and a Crunchy Nut choc ice. I think you know which one we shared. There’s a malted milk ice-cream centre beneath a chocolate shell shattering in all the right ways, courtesy of the title ingredient. After too many meals blighted by unwarranted outbreaks of granola, this is a righteous use of breakfast cereal.
BAM is not for everyone. It’s probably not for you. Or you. But you over there, you might like it. The place really is noisy, in all ways. They do keep some walk-ins, but at weekends you will have to queue. Given I’m loathe to do so myself, I obviously can’t recommend that. But if you do get a seat, I promise you it will be a meal that will leave a mark, of the right kind.
If the notion of roasted bone marrow is calling to you, the Hawksmoor steakhouse group serves it in lots of different ways. In Manchester they’ll give it to you hot with oysters. At Guildhall in the City of London, it’s part of the huge cooked breakfast to share, and in Covent Garden it’s a starter with onions. It’s also offered across the group as an extra with various cuts of steak.
Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, has quietly introduced an afternoon cream tea, which is being served in what was once the private dining room where Edward VII entertained his mistress, Lillie Langtry. Tea costs £29.75 per person and includes savoury canapes, followed by scones, cream and jam and then a choice of cakes including Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle and gingerbread with orange.
And it’s a sad farewell to Monty’s Deli in London’s Hoxton Street, famed for its salt beef, pastrami and latkes among many other things. While the restaurant will be gone by the end of July, they will continue with their sandwich stalls in both London’s Old Spitalfields Market and Victoria’s Market Halls. Other projects will be announced soon.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Jay Rayner will be appearing in a special Guardian Live event at London’s Cadogan Hall on September 9. In My Last Supper, the show accompanying his soon to be published new book of the same name, Jay examines our fascination with last meals and tells the story of his own. Click here for tickets.