I’ve been going to Mangal 2 for what feels like my entire life.
I’ve always loved the flavours and the aromas of London’s Turkish mangals; when you walk in, you get hit by the smoke and the sounds – it’s everything I love about cooking over open fire. The entire process is a very visual and multi-sensory experience, and I feel like when you’re at Mangal 2, you can connect with that.
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I went there for many years when it was a very traditional Turkish mangal, most frequently when I worked at St. John – I liked to pop in for lunch. Like other Turkish grills in the area, the ocakbaşı, stood in the centre of the restaurant, and a typical meal would involve plenty of bread, salads, and meat fresh off the coals.
Dalston has plenty of great Turkish restaurants, but I always felt more drawn to Mangal 2. Of course, the food was consistently great, and the execution of the dishes stood out to me, like the esme salad and the hummus. It’s all the things I want to eat, especially if I was feeling delicate after a few drinks – it’s equal to a fry-up in the restorative properties that it possesses. It’s a cuisine I find ultimately satisfying.
Once I opened my restaurant I had less and less time for eating out. I hadn’t been back to Mangal 2 for some time, and I was excited to see what Sertaç and Ferhat, the sons of the original owner Ali Dirik, were doing differently. They had changed things up and I’d heard such good things and felt that buzz from people that had dined there, who relayed their meal and experience with genuine delight and enthusiasm.
When Kate and I went, we weren’t disappointed. I love the changes that the brothers have made; they bend the mind in the best way, paying homage to the historic nature of the Mangal 2 menu with a new, bold approach. They give zero fucks and it’s very exciting.
And part of what makes the restaurant exciting is that I still have access to the classic mangal experience that I might crave from a number of great restaurants in the area, but I can also go to Mangal 2 and have something that’s different but still hits the same notes.
These days, the restaurant is a little different, but it still has a very similar energy, and a much cosier feel now. The most amazing sound for me in a restaurant – it’s one of the things I remember Fergus [Henderson] telling me about – is the murmur and chitter chatter of diners, the noise in the background that can only be created by multiple people having multiple conversations. It’s the vibe at Mangal 2 when it’s going full throttle.
The response to the changes has been really positive for Sertaç and Ferhat because they took a risk and decided to go against the grain of the traditional mangal that they grew up working in – something they were entitled to do. I think there was some backlash, but they decided to drive it the way that they wanted, and I have the utmost respect for that. I daresay that they’ve lost a few customers who loved it as a traditional mangal, but they’ve gained so much more by striking out and doing things a little bit differently – if no one ever took any risks, there would be no progression.
When it comes to what makes a classic restaurant, I don’t want to over-analyse what makes these places “great” – it takes the mysticism out of it, and each institution has different facets that attract people at certain times for different reasons.
That said, sometimes I feel like restaurants like Mangal 2 aren’t represented when we talk about “classic” restaurants. They’re doing truly great food, but we only tend to celebrate a small percentage of the restaurants that we have in London. But the best places – the Mangal 2s of the world – have never relied on lists. They’ve always relied on repeat custom, word of mouth, and they don’t answer to anyone. That’s why they’re excellent.
For me, Mangal 2 easily stands as a London institution against the highest bracket of restaurants. I’m not sure it’s Gilbert and George’s bag anymore – but I’m not sure if that particularly bothers the guys.
Lee Tiernan is the chef and co-owner of Black Axe Mangal.