Wednesday 28 July 2021

Mangal 2, Dalston

Fans of London restaurants have, despite everything, had a great deal to get excited about over the last few weeks. As the post-covid landscape continues to shift and shuffle, and amidst the smattering of genuinely sad closures and the continuing stress of the "pingdemic", a few genuine surprises and delights have cropped up. Some I've featured on this blog, and that ventures as diverse as Temaki, Bingham Riverhouse and INO Gastrobar have landed so successfully in such difficult times is testament to London's relentless capacity to reinvent and reenergise.

But sometimes a restaurant story crops up from such an unlikely corner of the city that you have to keep checking you're not going mad or aren't unwittingly part of some kind of elaborate reality TV scam. Mangal 2 was, until quite recently, a perfectly decent and fairly traditional ocakbasi, one of many that line Stoke Newington High Street serving tarama, sucuk, lamb chops and flatbread, fairly efficiently and for not very much money. I liked it, but then I've never really found an ocakbasi I didn't like, and the only thing that set Mangal 2 apart from, say, Bos Cirrik or Umut 2000 (both steps away) was the fact that on any given night you stood a fairly good chance of eating at the next table from eccentric art duo Gilbert and George, who had made it their local.

But during lockdown(s), something very strange happened at Mangal 2. Owners/brothers Ferhat (front of house and irrascible Twitter personality) and Sertaç (new-wave Anatolian chef with a year in foodie mecca Copenhagen under his belt) Dirik, having decided that running a restaurant during a global pandemic wasn't already enough of a challenge, and running the risk of completely flummoxing their traditional customer base (not least Gilbert and George), quietly relaunched their modest little Dalston spot as a exciting modern Turkish bistro serving a short, bold menu of carefully crafted and exquisitely presented dishes that completely redefine what Turkish food means in London.

Don't believe me? I don't blame you - I could hardly believe it myself - but stop me when you see something you don't immediately want to eat:

Sourdough Pide with Cultured Keymak Butter
Cold Grilled Onion Salad
Friggitelli Peppers
Cull Yaw Kofte
House Hummus
Brown Crab Sarma with a Langoustine Emulsion Grilled Quail

(Nothing yet? OK I'll continue)

Grilled Aubergine with a Buttermilk and Aleppo Glaze
Mushroom Manti Dumplings, Confit Tomato and Yoghurt
Chicken Thigh Shish
Yaprak Doner
Lamb Sweetbreads with Pomegranete Molasses
Cull Yaw Chop

(Still happily eat everything? Same here.)

Grilled Octopus with Butter Beans
Line-Caught Mackerel
Plaice with Garlic Kaymak Butter

...OK, OK, I'll stop. But you can see my issue when presented with the above - if you have even the most passing interest in live-fire Turkish cuisine, or let's face it, food generally, choosing a sensible amount of dishes from this mini masterpiece of a menu is an absolutely Herculanean task, and one, in the end, we failed miserably at. But let me at least explain to you why.

House pickles arrived before anything else, a couple of bits of nice crunchy turnip (I think) and soft, sweet gherkin. A nod to the Turkish past but with their feet firmly in the Nordic-flavoured present, they were a modest indicator of what was to come.

"Pide" they coyly called this beautiful thing, though it was unlike anything bearing that name I'd come across in London or elsewhere, ever. Charred from a searing hot oven, risen like a Yorkshire pudding and soaked in excellent olive oil, it was a masterclass in bread work, and a dollop of funky, salty "kaymak" butter added another touch of that Nordic/Turkish crossover charm.

Onion salad had also been treated to a healthy time over the coals, and as well as being dressed with various interesting herbs and spices boasted a significant kick from chilli flakes, something which only revealed itself after I'd already had a couple of large mouthfuls. Was a nice surprise, though.

So far, so great. But things were about to get a lot more exciting with the arrival of the "sarma", a parcel of brown crab and rice wrapped in vine leaf which would have been soaked in buttery seafood flavours and troublingly addictive even without the addition of "langoustine emulsion", a kind of seafood mayonnaise, swirled on top. The fact that this dish involves two of my favourite things in the world, and not only did not disappoint but somehow was even greater than I imagined it would be, should tell you everything you need to know. Astonishing stuff.

From here on, everything that arrived on our table with nothing short of magical. Firstly this cull yaw kofte, which announced its presence with an aroma so enchantingly gamey and complex that it was worth ordering just to have the opportunity to be near it. Of course, to eat it was to be even further bewitched - these extraordinary animals which I've spoken about before on this blog are raised by Matt Chatfield on his farm in Cornwall and though I don't know a great deal about the mystical methods he uses to turn older sheep that would otherwise have been culled (hence the name) into one of Western Europe's greatest meat products of any kind (this is not hyperbole, seriously try some), all I do know is that anywhere serving it knows a thing or two about great ingredients.

Manti dumplings had a delicate thin casing and rich, powerfully-flavoured mushroom filling and came served with a lovely tomato chutney of some kind ("confit" on the menu) and some yoghurt, hot with garlic. This is one of those dishes, vibrant and bright, with each element working in total harmony, that's so easy to eat and so attractively constructed that it sort of washes over you, a soothing balm of tasteful summer flavour.

And then the sweetbreads. Oh, lordy the sweetbreads. Gleaming gems of meaty offal coated in glossy pomegranate molasses that you wrapped up in shiso leaves and ate a few precious morsels at a time, these were just about the finest and most expertly dressed lamb glands I can remember having anywhere - in fact, I'm fairly confident they're the best you can find in London and if anyone finds any better I'll need to make a special journey there too.

Even an ezme salad, the one vaguely recognisable item from the Mangal 2 Before Times, seemed a cut above, seasoned nicely and with a good texture.

At this point, all the food we'd ordered had arrived and had been comprehensively demolished. But barely a 2nd glance was needed to my dining companion that we weren't prepared to end the evening here, not by a long way, and so we ordered firstly the quail, a carefully-cooked thing coated in a fascinating dry rub of who knows how many different kinds of herbs and spices...

...and secondly, of course, more cull yaw, because if there's one thing any evening needs it's more cull yaw. Here was a whole chop, a steal at £16, which ran from pure fat at one end which melted in the mouth like gamey butter, to pink slices of chargrilled meat at the other, the flavour of which I struggle to describe without using (and re-using) words like "intense", "complex" and "completely bloody otherworldly". I feel the same way about cull yaw as I do about late season grouse - there's that strong sense of the environment the animal has come from translating directly into the flavours in the meat, and of a healthy life lived well.

There was, finally, also a dessert. Tahini tart was the first time I'd had the sesame paste outside of a savoury dish but it made absolute sense here, topped with a lovely rich hazelnut cream. Anywhere else this would have been a highlight, here it was merely a booknote to one of the most extraordinary meals I've had in the capital in recent years.

So yes, as you may have gathered by now, it's fair to say I'm very much in favour of the revamped Mangal 2. Ignoring the extraordinary back story and simply taken at face value as a new modern Turkish bistro, the fierce intelligence of the sourcing and cooking and innovation on the menu would have still had me giddy with delight, a genuinely new and exciting addition to the capital. But that the Dirik brothers have risked everything - their traditional customer base, their livelihoods in a pandemic - in a brazen attempt to reinvent and relaunch their family business into something that looks boldly forward while keeping an eye on tradition, in an experiment that let's face it could have just as easily backfired as found a new and appreciative audience well, that's just even more to admire. For this monumental achievement, in this year of all years, they should be exceedingly proud. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to book another table.


Tuesday 20 July 2021

Temaki, Brixton

One of the strange things about living in a country like the UK, somewhere that only in recent decades that has really found its feet when it comes to eating out and food generally, is that an ersatz introduction to a particular cuisine, via, say a high-street chain or supermarket reproduction, can quite unfairly cloud your opinion of an entire food culture for a good chunk of your life. For many of us growing up, Pizza Express was a pizza, and if you didn't like Pizza Express, you didn't like pizza. Sweet & sour pork balls was Chinese food, lamb vindaloo and poppadums was Indian, and a steakhouse served watery grey slabs of mystery meat with frozen chips and that was that.

The first time I tried a real, Neopolitan style pizza - at Santa Maria in Ealing I think it was - I was struck by the realisation that it wasn't actually pizza I didn't like, it was the cardboard-flavoured water biscuits covered in commodity slop they served at Pizza Express. Silk Road in Camberwell was lesson 101 in the infinite variety and invention of Chinese food, a journey that continues to this day, the idea that a country of a billion people and thousands of distinct cooking traditions could be accurately represented by a portion of frozen orange chicken and prawn crackers being increasingly farcical. And Tayyabs for Indian/Pakistani, and Hawksmoor for steak. See how far we've all come.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently wrong with a Set Meal A for Two or even Pizza Express if you're really desperate, but when a sizeable percentage of the British population grows up associating these places with Chinese food and Pizza then the task of convincing people it's worthwhile seeking out the real deal becomes increasingly difficult. I know a lot of people who say they don't like sushi, but I also know they will have only ever picked it off the shelves, cold and faded, at Waitrose or off the conveyor belt at Yo! Sushi at Gatwick North, and I wonder what their reaction would be to an omakase involving fluffy body-temperature rice and healthy slabs of marbled otoro.

So, step forward Temaki. If you think sushi isn't for you, or that the good stuff needs to be prohibitively expensive, this friendly yet determinedly cool space in Brixton Market is about to change all that. Not only is this serious, authentic Japanese food, borne of traditional skills (the chef spent a year in Japan) and making the most of the best British ingredients, but you're also treated to the theatre of your dinner being lovingly prepared to order, omakase-style, right in front of you, the kind of experience that you may expect to a hell of a lot more for elsewhere.

The menu is short, in that style of Japanese ultra-specialisation that London could really do with seeing a lot more of, and if there's a single damn thing on it you don't want to eat well, you're a stronger person than me. We basically tried everything, starting with a plate of monkfish kara age, golden-brown nibbles of meaty fish served with a ponzu-spiked mayo studded with fish roe.

Yellowtail sashimi came in another ponzu dressing, this time sharp and gently sweet, and with a couple of bits of chilli to add a bit of heat. Also on the plate were a citrussy nasturium leaves; Temaki use local ingredients whenever they think they're better than the alternative, to often impressive effect.

Take these peas, for example. Temaki have rightly decided that fresh local summer peas are a far more enticing prospect than frozen edamame shipped halfway across the world, and so, coated in salt and buckwheat, they have turned them into an English-Japanese fusion snack. You draw the peas out of the pods with your teeth while stripping the salty coating from the outside - innovative and dangerously addictive.

Salmon tataki had a good dark, firm crust and the house pickled onion cut through the fat beneath that skin beautifully.

House pickles included carrot, daikon and turnip, all a good balance of sweet & sour and loosened with sesame oil.

And then with the small plates and snacks out of the way, we were on to the main events. I'd had temaki before in the same way I'd had pizza before that meal at Santa Maria, insofar as not really. The cold, lifeless little cones of dry grains and sad fish available from your local supermarket bore absolutely no comparison to these things, prepared lovingly by hand with warm rice and the finest seafood, which were so gloriously easy to eat I'm surprised I'm not there still, endlessly reordering between mouthfuls of sake. This is akami tuna with nikiri soy, nikiri being that kind of glossy reduced sweet soy that sushi chefs often "paint" onto nigiri before serving, and it's this particular style of temaki that inspired head chef Shaulan Steenson to go down the temaki route after a life-changing experience in Japan. I find quite a few experiences in Japan tend to be life-changing.

Otoro (fatty tuna) was also fantastic, another addictively proportioned morsel of warm rice and fish, with some spring onion for crunch. There's almost certainly a lot more going on in these things than I am aware of, certainly there are more ingredients than the menu describes, but part of the joy of eating here is discovering all the clever little dressings and pickles they've added to the different temaki in order to better showcase the main ingredient. About this time, and not pictured here is a Devon (Brixham) crab temaki, which added white soy and egg yolk to the sweet, soft seafood.

Eel is another premium ingredient that Temaki know how to use well. Glazed in a BBQ sauce, and wrapped up with cucumber, it was another absolutely superb thing, each of the couple of mouthfuls it took to demolish it balancing honeyed seafood, the crunch of veg and soft rice.

As for a final bill, I'm afraid we didn't see one, as somewhere along the way my booking enquiry was intercepted by the owners and they had offered all of the above on the house. Thanks very much to them. But although food like this shouldn't ever be cheap, I think six expertly-crafted temaki with top-quality rice and ingredients like otoro, crab and eel for £30 is something approaching a bargain. Think of it as a kind of temaki tasting menu. And as for the generous mound of fried monkfish pieces (£7), the lovely crusty salmon tataki (£7) and so on, well, you'll only end up with a big bill because it's all so addictively brilliant, not because it's overpriced. This is, by anyone's standards, good value.

Look, I realise that in my worryingly obsessive foodie way I tend to get excited about anywhere doing something new (or at least new in London) because, well, new is exciting, especially for jaded old bloggers like me. Perhaps in a few years when there's a temaki bar on every street corner I'll look back on this review and wonder how I was so easily impressed, but something tells me quality like this will age well. And whether or not this is the start of some new hand roll trend or a one-off, the fact is it's here now and it's great, and so you should make the absolute most of it because if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it's that you'd better take these opportunities as often as you can. So what on earth are you waiting for?


I was quite prepared to pay for my dinner but the owners would have none of it, so I didn't see a bill. I think it would have come to about £50/head if we were paying.

Thursday 15 July 2021

Bingham Riverhouse, Richmond

I first visited Bingham Riverhouse in March 2020, a world that seems so different now it may as well have been 1820. I had a lovely evening, nestled in a corner table in this plush old pile overlooking the Thames, popped in for a quick drink in a nearby pub on the way back to the station, and then got the train home, maskless and slightly drunk. Before I got round to writing it up, the world shut down, the blog quickly followed, and by the time restaurants had started tentatively opening again I realised I didn't remember enough about the meal to write it up and somehow also my camera's photobank had been wiped.

It's a testament to the lovely people doing the PR for Bingham Riverhouse that they didn't just put me on their black list there and then and call the whole thing a write-off. I did apologise profusely and found a couple of phone images to put on instagram, but still felt terrible about the whole thing, and was as surprised - and delighted - as anyone when they invited me back to try again. In November 2020. Everything would be back to normal by November 2020, right?

As that fateful day drew closer, cases rose and rose and rose and a few days before our triumphant return to Richmond, that got cancelled too. The story of the last couple of years is a cycle of fear, lockdown and isolation, hope and optimism, a period of hedonistic release and then the return of gradual crushing disappointment and fear. Rinse and repeat. Incredibly they got back in touch after the most recent lockdown to invite me back again and I got on the train to Richmond half expecting to discover on the way they'd been closed due to a Covid outbreak or a flash flood, both increasingly regular occurrences these days, but no - this time the restaurant gods were smiling on us and the evening passed without serious incident.

And I really, really hope they manage to stay open for a very long time now, because there's so much to love about the place I hardly know where to start. Anyone who's ever been to Richmond knows this is easily one of the most beautiful areas within the M25, but the location of Bingham Riverhouse, a grand Georgian building overlooking the Thames, is quite something to behold. From our dinner table in the nicely proportioned dining room we looked across a dainty balcony with lovely ironwork onto the river, where groups of people paddleboarded up and down in the early evening summer sun.

Dinner started with a couple of rather lovely canapés, a little truffled mushroom burger which disappeared in one deeply satisfying, richly fungal bite, and a neat dollop of crab on a little soft pancake.

House bread were these stunning brioche buns, so smoothly glossy you could almost see your reflection in them, and a whipped butter, green for a reason that escapes me, but I remember it tasted very nice indeed. I just love the variety of the bread course in London restaurants at the moment - each seems to be outdoing each other to produce something even more lovely and unique. We have certainly come a long way from the ubiquitous sourdough (not that there's anything wrong with that of course).

This is a broccoli "soup", although I'm sure I hardly needs to say it bears about as much resemblance to your nearest caff's Soup of the Day as a plate of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota does to a packet of Value Wafer Thin. It had been treated to one of those clever velouté processes that turns it into a kind of incredibly light broccoli mousse, which dissolved in the mouth leaving a wispy essence of vegetable and seasoning. In it were little bits of buttered asparagus - a perfect match for the soup, as it happens - and then alongside little pastry crackers topped with soft blue cheese and pickled apple. This was a very good dish.

A dainty little fillet of sea bream, skin crisped up expertly and topped with a couple of bits of charred courgette, came with a silky smooth courgette purée and - an interesting and clever touch - a few sprigs of micro basil. All the vegetables had of course been treated intelligently and skillfully but the real star here was the fish, all buttery beneath the crunchy skin and full of flavour.

A soft, rosy pink slice of duck breast next, next to a healthy little slab of foie topped with puffed (I think) rice for a bit of texture. With it, what they called 'raspberry ketchup', a clever bit of engineering that managed to use the flavour of raspberries to compliment the duck, without itself beeing overly sweet or distracting. Add a glossy duck jus and some pea shoots and you have a technically impressive but - most importantly - incredibly enjoyable dish.

As a kind of companion piece to the duck breast, here we have duck egg yolk, with a very slight firmness but without a hint of that rather unpleasant 'fudginess' that you often get with slow-cooked yolk. It sat on a bed of insanely creamy and light Jersey Royal mash ('tis the season, after all) and a very rogan-esque nasturtium oil which gleamed brilliant green but also added a nice earthy vegetal note. On the side, some geometrically-exact "soldiers" to dip in the egg, which didn't in all honesty add much but I can see what they were getting at.

Incredibly, the next course was even more impressive. A neat medallion of pork fillet, a juicy morsel of layered belly, a dollop of fennel purée and a baton of charred cucumber; four elements of exquisite beauty and rich flavour, bound by a dark, silky pork jus. A feast for all the senses, and a work of art.

Now, I fully respect anyone's decision to put Stinking Bishop cheese on the same plate as rose sorbet, and will defend to the death their right to do so. As the flavours mixed in my mouth, though, I went through various states of confusion, alarm and distress, and yet at the end of it all, though still bewildered and a bit traumatised, I have to say that, much in the same way as you'd feel after your first bungee jump or cross-channel swim, I felt my stack of life experiences had been built on. This is not to say I ever want to eat eye-wateringly smelly washed-rind cheese and rose sorbet together any time again soon, but at least I can say I've done it.

A little piece of chocolate cake with "croissant ice cream" helped settle the nerves. There isn't much to say about this; it was just a really nice dessert of chocolate cake and ice cream, and I was very happy with it.

Finally, gooseberry sorbet with an elderflower parfait, the sorbet sat on some shortbread crumbs and the parfait speared with a bit of fennel cracker. I like sticky toffee pudding and custard tart as much as anyone, but there's something just so right about summer desserts eaten at the proper time of the year, when the ingredients sing and you can enjoy them with added views of people paddleboarding on the Thames.

Because yes, all of this food would have been wonderful eaten in a windowless basement lit by a single naked lightbulb but here, in our grand perch overlooking the river, lit by the late evening sun, they took on a special kind of grandeur. I know I'm a sucker for this kind of food, and these kinds of surroundings, and yes of course this was an invite so I had the added bonus of not having to worry about a bill, but I would honestly come straight back to Bingham Riverhouse the first chance I got, and happily pay, because after two visits now over the space of a year and a half I can report that not only is the standard not dropping but in fact continues to accelarate sky high.

So, a year and a half after my first visit but hopefully better late than never, I can finally, unequivocally, recommend a meal at Bingham Riverhouse. Masterchef Professionals winner Steven Edwards is cooking exactly the kind of food anyone sensible would want to eat, and at prices that whilst somewhat outside of everyday, are still more than reasonable (£55 for 5 courses, £75 for 7, I mean you would, wouldn't you?). Look it's great, and it's open, and I suggest you get there as soon as you can because as we've all learned to our cost, nothing is certain anymore. And if there's somewhere - anywhere - like this offering an escape from the general terror, even just for a few precious hours, my advice is you take it.


I was invited to Bingham Riverhouse, and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Inn at the Sticks, Llansteffan

In an attempt to describe meals in sufficient detail (sufficient to try and convince people I know what I'm talking about, that is), it sometimes feels like I'm rather unfairly picking out every fault in a dish instead of letting the minor issues fly and focusing on the overall effect. The thing is, details are easy to explain, and faults doubly so, and so it's very easy to fall in that trap of being super analytical without really getting to the heart of whether a restaurant experience overall is good or bad.

I wouldn't really know to change this - old dog, new tricks and so on - or even if it's possible, but let me say this about Inn at the Sticks in Llansteffan before we go any further: we really enjoyed our evening at this friendly - and superbly popular - gastropub on the Camarthenshire coast, and for the prices they are charging I'd recommend it to basically anyone.

Right, it's time for the details, and actually this vast bowl of mussels got all the details right. The wine and butter broth was deep and satisfying, studded with shallots (I think) and fresh parsley, and the mussels themselves were plump and fresh tasting, free of grit and full of flavour. The three of us shared this single portion as a starter, and still struggled to finish our mains.

Bread, pleasant enough itself but served with a very nice soft salted butter, came draped with a few leaves of wilted salad. No, I don't know why either but these are details - who cares if they want to serve dry salad on bread, or chopped chives on butter, we just removed them and carried on. Easy. No harm done.

Main courses varied quite a bit in portion sizes so I'll take you from the smallest to the largest. First fish and chips, pretty modest and perhaps a tad over, but was still perfectly enjoyable and the chips - huge, crunchy things - were fantastic. I'm going to ignore what they did to the peas though, as life's too short.

Next, and another victim of the Sticks' compulsion to put salad on things, was chicken kiev, hiding under about a half a kilo of rocket and parmesan. Once I'd scraped the rocket off, I was treated to a huge slab of greaseless, crisp chicken breast, which oozed garlic butter as the breadcrumbed casing was broken into. For £10.50, no complaints. Well you know, some complaints but none that really matter.

King of the portion sizes was the catch of the day - hake - which arrived as two giant fillets, literally double what you might be forgiven for expecting for £14. They were utterly perfectly cooked, moist and buttery and firm, and with gorgeous dark, crisp skins that revealed themselves after we'd scraped off a mound of buttered parsley. Actually, the parsley was a lovely accompaniment and a decently judged portion, so I've no need to be mean about it.

And that was all we could manage. A great little unpretentious dinner in a pretty Camarthenshire town, and a very early one as high season and word of mouth had clearly had quite the effect on their bookings. We turned up at 5pm (the only available table), ate extremely well for about an hour and a half, then got back to our clifftop AirBnB in time for digestifs on the verandah. The total bill came to £22.65 each plus tip, which we were more than happy to add for service so enthusiastic it bordered on cultish, like being waited on by the cast of Book of Mormon.

So why sweat the details? If you can rock up at a joint like this with £22 in your pocket and a hankering for fresh fish and chunky chips and come away happy, who needs to know about superfluous salad or weird peas? Nobody, that's who, if at the end of the evening your body is brimming with joy and butter-induced heartburn. Sticks at the Inn is the pride of Llansteffan, and they should be very proud indeed.