Mangal 2, 4 Stoke Newington Road, London N16 7XN (020 7254 7888). Small plates £5-£12, large plates £14-£19, desserts £7.50-£8.50, wines from £28
If Mangal 2 were located almost anywhere else in London, it would not seem especially remarkable: just another urban bistro with an open kitchen, bare floorboards and a short list of low-intervention wines that could do with a little more intervention. But context matters. Instead, it sits on the main drag in Dalston surrounded by ocakbasi, or Turkish grill houses. The air on the street is heavy with the come-hither smell of rendering lamb and in brightly lit windows, the capital’s very best doner kebabs turn slowly on their skewers, flaunting their curves, as Mail Online might put it, if they ever wrote about food with the vigour they reserve for objectifying people.
Once upon a time, Mangal 2 was like its neighbours. It was a Turkish grill restaurant, famed as the place where Gilbert & George would go almost every night for their tea, and more latterly for its gloriously stroppy presence on Twitter. As the numeral suggests it was the second London restaurant from a chef called Ali Dirik, who moved to London from Istanbul in 1987. It is now run by his sons, restaurant manager Ferhat and chef Sertaç, who spent a year cooking his way around Copenhagen, a honey pot for chefs wanting to slice their ambitions open on the culinary cutting edge.
At some point during the tumult of the past 18 months, the brothers decided they no longer wished to replicate the menu served by their neighbours. They wanted to be something else. That something else was brought to my attention by Chris Pople, who writes the longstanding restaurant blog Cheese and Biscuits. Pople’s account of his meal there was verging on the breathless. If there’s an opportunity to be winded by my dinner, I’m definitely here for it.
It was a very good tip. Again, context is everything. It is the history – what this restaurant once was, what it has now become – which really makes the experience. But even without that backstory, this is still delightful cooking. It draws affectionately on the Turkish repertoire without being afraid of innovation. There is, of course, a lot that draws on tradition. There is hummus, but it’s an uncommonly rugged affair with a hint of cheesy funk. It arrives with a deep well, filled with a seriously peppery olive oil the colour of new leaf growth, which acts less as lubricant than condiment. With it is a round of their lightly blackened, chewy and springy flatbread, with a hot crust that demands to be torn at.
We have vine leaves rolled and stuffed with rice, bound with the ocean whack of brown crab meat. It has been given go-faster stripes courtesy of ribbons across the top of a langoustine emulsion, a kind of spice-dusted, turbo-charged mayonnaise. There’s also a cold grilled onion salad – petals of onion layers have been charred and roasted until sweet and woozy. They are dressed with dried herbs reinvigorated by a sprightly, acidic dressing. We finish this series of small plates with a trio of mushroom dumplings, the silky white skins pulled into pleats and filled with a mushroom duxelles of huge depth and punch. Underneath there is a puddle of a yoghurt dressing; on top the fleshy bits of tomatoes, confited to make them most intensely themselves. It’s a plate of serious pre-service commitment and effort. It tap-dances its way on to the table.
From the bigger plates we have a pile of expertly cooked lamb sweetbreads. They are a textural joy, hinged between the soft and creamy inside and the crisp and taut outside, propelled by a dark sauce built around the sweet-sour kick of pomegranate molasses. Alongside are large shiso leaves, with their wafty aromatics. They could have felt like interlopers from another menu entirely, but they fit in just fine.
A restaurant like this, pulling deeply on Anatolian traditions, needs to feature more of the sheep than just its thymus gland. Sertaç Dirik makes a point of using “cull yaw” mutton from Cornwall. It comes from aged ewes. Just as beef-eaters have realised that dairy animals, with time on the clock, provide the very best steaks, so these sheep are where the flavour is. We have a single chop. It is fatty meat and powerful and rich and won’t be to everyone’s taste. It is to mine. We also have a classic Turkish ezme salad, of tomatoes, onions, garlic and green peppers. It is meant to be finely chopped. Often there is the suspicion it has been blitzed in the processor. Here though it arrives as the finest, most precise dice. It is an ezme salad lifted to a blissful state of elegance.
There are just two items on the dessert menu, but both are proper pieces of pastry work. There’s a thin-shelled tahini tart, filled with a velvety sesame caramel. Across the top are whorls of cream flavoured with hazelnut. A classic baba is soaked not in a rum syrup, but one boosted by the more culturally relevant aniseed joys of raki. In an attempt to find something to quibble about, I’ll claim I would have liked the baba to spend a little more time in its syrup bath until completely sodden, but my heart isn’t in it. There’s also a cream with a brilliant sour edge courtesy of Mirabelle plums to wrestle the overt sweetness into submission. It’s delightful.
To drink there was indeed wine, of a sort. I’ve already moaned about it, but I’ll do so again. It’s a list written by fans of natural wines so ardent, so committed, they’ve probably been to all the gigs, bought the T-shirts, and then scribbled love letters to them with little hearts to dot all the ‘i’s. A gewürztraminer, at £49, is a whacking 14% and smells of filthy farmyard. It’s cloudy to start and completely opaque at the bottom, like Dyno-Rod had just been in to clear a blockage and wants to show you what the problem was. It also means the cheapest bottle is £28 and much of the list is over £40. It’s odd because food prices, at between £5 and £19 a dish, are thoroughly reasonable. Yeah, I know. I clearly don’t like the wines.
Let’s consider you forewarned on that. What matters here is some serious and inventive cooking. The Dirik boys have declined to be hidebound by the traditions on their very doorstep. It’s brave and compelling. And as it happens, properly delicious.