Tuesday, 3 August 2010
Mangal 2, Dalston
One of the great ethnic food styles of London, I've never had an ocakbasi (translating as far as I can tell as simply 'charcoal grill') that's been anything less than decent, and they have the potential to be very good indeed. Yet bizarrely, they also seem to be one of the most overlooked cuisines in the capital, certainly next to Chinese or Vietnamese or Indian/Pakistani. At the risk of sounding patronising, I can't help feeling they often only have themselves to blame - I've known many a very impressive ocakbasi grill (characterised by their huge extractor hoods) hiding towards the back of the restaurant, while pride of place in the shop window goes to two columns of sweaty doner meat and a tray of deep-fried chicken. It's hardly the best way to attract passing trade, but then again, perhaps it's all deliberate, meaning only those with an insatiable desire for food adventure, or sufficiently clued-up locals, are deemed suitable to sample the proper food. And it was thanks partly to a very clued-up local and my own mindlessly optimistic attitude towards London restaurants that I found myself in Mangal 2 in Dalston last night, sampling some very proper food indeed.
The first real test of any ocakbasi is the house bread. I've mentioned before I find it surprising that considering almost every single Turkish restaurant in London has a big wood fired oven and makes its own bread, how little of it is any good. Before Mangal 2, my favourite Turkish bread came out of the ovens at Meze Mangal in New Cross; now, Mangal 2 has taken that crown. This stuff was marvellous - piping hot, delicately crusted outside and gently billowy within, it was gently seasoned and had an addictive butteryness that's so often missing from Turkish bread in London. Mangal 2 give you a huge basket of the stuff without even charging for it, which is straight out of the "how to win favour with Cheese and Biscuits" instruction manual and should be applauded.
I'll continue with the menu items that didn't impress too much. Most disappointingly of all, the house hummus was rather lumpy, which would have been forgivable in itself if it hadn't also tasted strangely old and mouldy - not very pleasant. Also the Lahmacun (a kind of Turkish pizza) needed something to lift it out of the ordinary - it was bland and slightly underseasoned and although perfectly edible wasn't anything I'd rush to order again.
But now the good news. Sucuk, Turkish beef sausages, looked like something out of a tin from the 1950s but tasted lovely - spicy and dense and with a good texture of real beef that belied their processed appearance; a plate of six chicken wings were crispy from the grill, moist inside and with a subtle piquant marinade; and a few slices of halloumi were nicely browned and served with a couple of good crispy pickles to cut through the grease. All the hot dishes were served, too, on a mixture of fresh leaves and grilled vegetables, which I thought was an excellent idea - lettuce is better fresh, onion is nice grilled, so why not serve them together?
All these dishes, you may have noticed, were starter portions. If there's only two of you, it's a great way to sample as much of the menu as possible without getting hugely stuffed, and is a technique I often employ to good effect in Vietnamese restaurants (where in fact I've found the starters are often more interesting the mains anyway). Somehow though, we still rolled out of Mangal 2 last night completely full, and having spent close to a pittance - about £12 each, even including service which, by the way, was smart and friendly. I'm not going to pretend that Mangal 2 is the greatest Turkish restaurant in London, or even that it's worth a special journey, but it is perhaps time that some of the many solid, dependable local ocakbasi places got the attention they deserve. So next time you're walking past your nearest kebab shop, try to look past the doner meat and the greasy chicken pieces and see if there's a huge, gleaming copper extractor hood lurking further inside. If there is, you may have just discovered your new favourite local restaurant. You're welcome.