Tuesday, 19 July 2011
FM Mangal, Camberwell
There's something special about the FM Mangal pickle sauce. It's brought out with the house bread whether you're sitting down to a £6 lunch special (huge and surely one of the great lunch bargains of London) or, as we were last night, ordering way too much from the dinner menu, and it tastes bloody amazing - attractively purpley-red, just the right balance of sweet and sharp and containing huge chunks of crispy charcoal-blackened onion. But that's not why it's special. At least, it's not the only reason. It's special because despite persistent (polite) questioning, none of the staff at FM Mangal will reveal what goes into it.
"It's a chef's secret," they say.
"But is it pomegranate? Beetroot? Is there garlic?"
"It's a chef's secret, sorry."
And there's nothing more likely to pique the interest of a curious food blogger than a hint of mystery surrounding a dish or a restaurant. It's what made the Meatwagon story so appealing - you could guess at the recipe for the bun, you could watch the guys making the things like a hawk, you could try and ask the owner Yianni where he got his cheese from, but somehow you just wouldn't get anywhere. The bun would remain glossy and tasty and just firm enough whilst being stubbornly unavailable to anyone else, the method seemed simple from what you could gather from watching and yet any attempts to recreate the things in your own kitchen were doomed to failure, and good luck getting anything but obfuscation and enigmatic evasion from Yianni. All you can do is eat those burgers and wonder how on earth they do it. It's infuriating - utterly, deliberately, deliciously infuriating.
As well as the mysterious house pickle sauce, though, there are still plenty of things to enjoy about FM Mangal. We started with a tray of cold mezze, which although fairly unadventurous (shop-bought tarama, for example, and a rather soggy tabbouleh) was still a huge amount of food for £6 and the lovely staff kept bringing out replacement bread as we ploughed our happy way through it. The bread deserves a special mention in fact - as well as being fresh and fluffy and plentiful, it appears to have been brushed with some kind of spice paste, giving it an interesting extra kick. We also enjoyed a little plate of sliced sucuk, hot Turkish sausage, dense and spicy.
Best of the mains was something called the FM Mangal Special, in which tender and tasty chunks of lamb kofte sat on top of a puréed aubergine and yoghurt sauce. A cut above your average ocakbasi dish, this contained a really interesting mix of textures and rich flavours, particularly the smoky, soft aubergine. Less impressive sadly were some lamb chops - I didn't mind so much they'd cooked them through to chewy grey but they didn't taste of anything other than plain grilled lamb. They definitely could have done with some more interesting marinade (or even any marinade at all).
Kenat were notable not just because they were beautifully cooked, crunchy outside and moist within, but because they were possibly the most enormous chicken wings I've ever seen. Each half-wing was the size and shape of a drumstick, and just four of them produced the amount of meat you'd normally expect to find on a whole bird. I don't know what freakish breed of chicken FM Mangal's butcher uses, but if they're conducting some kind of secret genetic experiment to compliment their secret dipping sauce, I think someone needs to tell Environmental Health. Scary.
In the same spirit of generosity and hospitality that had made our evening up to this point so enjoyable, with the bill (a pittance at just over £20 a head with two bottles of wine, and we had ordered far too much food) we were brought slices of watermelon, cubes of Turkish Delight and a three shots of hilarious multicoloured spirits - creme de banane, creme de menthe and triple sec. Perhaps some obscure Turkish liqueur would have been more authentic, but you have to love the idea of ending a meal on a random raid on the back of the drinks cabinet. Naff perhaps, but still rather charming.
A great little restaurant, then, and one that is evidently and deservedly popular. Through the smoke billowing up from the grill I could make out not only every table taken with a mix of large families, friends and couples but also a healthy queue of people milling about waiting for takeaway; the atmosphere was homely and happy, and it gladdened the heart. Or maybe that was just the Turkish house wine (surprisingly decent, £14 a bottle). But I will be back, I'm sure, and often - food like this, and so much of it, and at these prices, is easily enjoyed. And maybe one day I may even work out what goes into their secret pickle sauce.