You Don’t Have to Be Drunk to Eat These Kebabs
With the help of Tartine Bakery’s flatbread recipe and a spice mix from Mission Chinese, St. John alumnus Lee Tiernan’s new London restaurant is reimagining the Turkish staple (and guilty drunk food.)
All photos by the author.
"I never really had any intention of opening a restaurant here. I didn't give it much thought, except for the fact that, well, I didn't want to open here."
Having just locked my bike outside chef Lee Tiernan's new London restaurant, this wasn't quite what I'd been expecting to hear.
"But this site came along, I got swept up in it," he continues.
When we meet, the doors to Black Axe Mangal are a week from opening but Tiernan has been working towards its first service for years. Following the success of his six-week long stint in a Copenhagen nightclub, the London-born chef's take on Turkish cuisine has been perfected.
"We did a pop-up in Copenhagen and I kept running with that theme to now," says Tiernan. "It seemed like a logical progression."
Black Axe Mangal makes no claim to be an authentic Turkish restaurant although the charcoal grill, bread ovens, and quick-to-cook cuts form the basis of this style of cooking.
"The flavours and ingredients are certainly different to what you'll see elsewhere, though," Tiernan points out, as he gets to work chopping a cucumber after offering to make me dinner. "I've taken a lot of traditional elements—pickles, bulgur, lemon juice, grilled vegetables—but I'm employing them in different ways too."
Looking around the empty restaurant, I ask why he's picked this site in particular over anywhere else in the world.
"Well, It's somewhere small, somewhere casual, and somewhere wipeable—the food is fairly messy," Tiernan warns me, as he gets to work crushing with a pestle and mortar. "And London has a good vibe right now, there's a great food scene, and I'm excited to be part of that. Well, hopefully part of that, if the public accept us."
Tiernan's pedigree suggests that'll be a given.
Just before I arrive, the staff of Trullo, a nearby Italian restaurant favoured by those in the know, had been in for a private lunch. The recipe for the sourdough flatbread comes from the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, White Lyan mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana heads up the drinks menu, and the Szechuan spice mix being sprinkled on the salad is from New York's Mission Chinese.
It's not just Tiernan's networks that suggest Black Axe Mangal will be more than just another greasy Turkish joint.
Having trained at London's legendary St. John in Smithfield, Tiernan has added the restaurant's trademark nose-to-tail approach to his new menu, but tells me it should come as no surprise that Turkish cuisine is also fixated on using every part of the animal.
"We're doing lots of offal—cuts you wouldn't get in a London Turkish although you'll see these parts served up at joints in the heart of Istanbul," Tiernan explains as he places the confit lamb tongues onto the grill. "Hearts, sweetbreads, liver, kidneys, and testicles—it's nothing new for Turkish cuisine."
He's also pinched another St. John staple.
"I'm doing a rarebit," Tiernan proudly tells me."One of the best things you can do in London is go to St. John, get a bone marrow, a rarebit, and a pint of Guinness. It's fucking great."
As part of this "bastardisation of Turkish cooking," Tiernan's rarebit will be served up on his flatbread, with Worcestershire sauce-soaked onions and lightly browned cheese.
"Fergus called me a cheeky devil for doing it," he laughs."You're not meant to fuck with the rarebit, maybe the Worcester sauce onions are a step too far ... "
Tiernan's new restaurant used to be a Chinese takeaway which from my memory, had seen better days.
"It was called 'The Eastern,' although for the last few months of its life someone stole the 'N' so it was called 'The Easter' instead," adds Tiernan. It took his team six months to fix the place up, with many of his family members pitching in to help.
Now almost ready to open, Tiernan will head up the kitchen, while his wife Kate takes charge on front-of-house.
"For both of us, the support from friends and family has been humbling," he says. "But now? All eyes are on me."
Opening what is essentially a kebab house in North East London is bound to attract a more inebriated clientele but with his experience manning service in a Danish nightclub, Tiernan isn't phased.
"It's part of the culture," he says. "People associate a kebab with being drunk although if you go round Dalston any night of the week, most of the mangals are full of people wanting a great value meal."
He's got a point, but kebab joints are also the unquestionable home of Brits on the lash.
"I don't mind feeding pissed people, I like seeing people having a good time," Tiernan adds. "Kebabs have a stigma—people feel guilty when they eat one. You think it's a shit product."
It's understandable. The questionable meat-and-bread concoctions that top off a night of Jägerbombs feel a lot less magical the following morning.
But Black Axe Mangal is far cry from your neighbourhood "KeBABS & MORE" joint. The meat is sourced from local suppliers and each dish will be cooked to order. It's what Turkish people have been doing in London for 60 years but Tiernan is still intent on adding his own twist.
"Listen, not everyone's going to like it, they'll say it's too salty and spicy," he says. "But I'm happy and if stick to my guns and put out good food, I think it should all be fine. Basically, I want to be serving up the kebab that I can taste in my head."
If the dish Tiernan has just presented me with is anything to go by, his head is home to some seriously great kebabs.