Thursday, 17 December 2015
Black Axe Mangal, Islington
Perhaps it's a good thing I've had a bad meal at a restaurant everyone else seems to love. Consensus is certainly useful, especially when making a guide (or even, hint hint, an app), but runs the risk of getting at best boring, at worst counterproductive. Over the last few months I've barely heard a word against Chick'n'Sours, the Marksman, Hoppers, Bao and the rest and while it's great that these places exist (and are clearly excellent by most standard measures), the overwhelming agreement across online and print media starts to look a bit less like objective appraisal and a bit more like group think. Nowhere, despite my occasional 10/10 score, is *perfect* - a healthy approval rating for even the greatest restaurants in town shouldn't really be over 90%. This is, after all, a democracy, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
So here's my attempt to bring down the average on Black Axe Mangal a bit. I wanted to enjoy it of course; that goes for every restaurant I visit. But from the moment I stepped through the door of this self-consciously grungy spot near Highbury & Islington tube it felt like the customer was the least important part of some kind of strange student art project where eye-catching ingredients, ironic blokey cocktails and an insanely loud heavy metal soundtrack took precedence over anything close to hospitality.
But let's start where it matters - the food. Unable to choose between the two £3 snacks, and against, it has to be said, the advice of our waitress, we ordered both. Smoked cod's roe and crisps was pleasant enough, chips clearly home made and the roe with plenty of flavour and nicely seasoned. Salt pollack with crispy pig's skin was less enjoyable - a very greasy slab of puffed skin, so fresh out of the fryer it popped quite painfully in the mouth, with a blob of bacalau (as they'd call it in Catalonia) that didn't really go with the pig and wouldn't combine with the greasy skin even if you wanted it to. And yes, that is a pool of grease you can see at the bottom of the bowl.
"Lamb offal" was a decent piece of fresh flatbread, covered in indeterminate mush of lamb, and beaten into submission by onions, mayonnaise and way too much chilli. Sweet, soggy and way too fiery, it was a bit of a chore to eat.
"Sesame" was more edible, but I've still had way better flatbread from Green Lanes for a lot less. It was hot and fresh and had a decent texture, but was not really any more than that.
"Brussel[sic] sprout, cauliflower & preserved lemon" was just an unseasoned bowl of raw sprouts and cauliflower, dressed with nothing more than lemon juice as far as I can tell. Fine if you're on some kind of raw food diet and allergic to salt and pepper but oddly enough that's not why I'd travelled to a kebab shop in Islington.
I'd wanted to try Mangalitza pork since the boys at Pitt Cue started playing around with it in their place in Soho. In many ways, I wish I'd waited for my first taste - this was just a big slab of chewy meat, dripping with bland fat and pretty unpleasant. It was topped with rock hard sticks of greasy pork fat and a few bits of winter veg. The scallop was hiding underneath somewhere, as if it belonged to a different dish altogether. Not nice.
Finally, the Deep Throater wrap, hilariously stamped with its student-joke name - more decent bread containing a sweet, mushy filling of bland slow-cooked mutton. There was no trace of anchovy, the salty savouriness of which may have lifted it a bit, just an underwhelming faint note of mayonnaise and stewed meat. By this point we'd lost all patience, with the food, the lack of elbow room, the having to scream to be heard above a speaker system set to "fuck the customers, at least the staff are having a good time". We sipped the last of our ironically-decorated cocktails, paid the not insubstantial bill, and left.
Maybe I'm just getting old, I thought to myself, as we rested our ear drums and nerves in the lovely, quiet Canonbury pub just around the corner. Black Axe is clearly popular, there was a queue when we left and every table was taken, and this in a part of town with genuinely excellent competition like Trullo and Le Coq just over the road. Maybe I was missing something, or underestimated the population of hearing-impaired death-metal loving kebab lovers in N1. Maybe I'm just not their target audience.
But then I remembered that Smoking Goat have all the same acoustic, queuing and seating issues as Black Axe but also serve food so good that all those other inconveniences are just that, inconveniences. No, I didn't like Black Axe Mangal because the food wasn't very good. And you can blast your Spotify playlist at me as loud as you can, make me wait for hours in the rain and sit me three inches from a table of ten who've been drinking since midday, but if my dinner's not up to scratch, I won't go back. I won't go back.