BY GREGG LOPEZ /
Stepping out of Islington & Highbury station into a wall of construction dividers, squinting helplessly at a blue google map dot suspended somewhere near the roundabout, a temporary sign pointing me to The Famous Cock pub, which, like other businesses, was partially obscured by the facade of tarpaulin greeted me as I looked up. However, my destination, Black Axe Mangal (emphasis on “gal”), a small, rockin’ kebab joint nearby, took the opposite approach to the Cock and forwent any signage or signifiers other than their own famous cocks: the ones painted in a floral pattern on its wood floor. But, no, it isn’t the phallic footpath that has so many food writers in town salivating, it’s the bold flavours on BAM’s small innovative menu.
The tiny room could fill up easily on a weekend, so I took an early Tuesday evening to sample the small but diverse menu of haute headbanger fare. Chef Lee Tiernan, formerly of the more prim St John and Bread, has let his hair down, painted his clay oven black and adorned it with images of the merch-oriented metal band Kiss, who incidentally are quite litigious, but I don’t think anyone would confuse BAM with Gene Simmons’ chain of rock and roll airport restaurants.
The thirteen-item menu (including Snacks, Plates and Flatbreads) had changed quite a bit since the reviews I’d read (no pig cheek, no century egg and no “deepthroater”), so I took a punt on the Smoked Eel, Fermented Leek & Horseradish on a Steamed Bun, mostly because eels are cool and are the closest thing to eating snakes, and damn did that pay off. If you’re a pizza-folder like me, the light, spongy made-to-order bun is perfectly designed to deliver the tangy relishy anguilliform to your tonsils. Paired with the frothy, pink, hibiscus and rosehip Whiskey Sourz and set to the tune of Nirvana’s Lithium pumping out of some bookshelf speakers, I came in skating distance to an actual Proustian moment. And just like that it was gone. Craving more, I drummed on the bright floral vinyl covered table and ordered the lamb offal flatbread with its dark, potato and spelt flour crust, lamb hidden under a quilt of soft onions, topped with strips of tahini-fused mayonnaise and served in a basket for some reason which made it hard to cut, but whatever, Tiernan knows what he’s doing. I resisted the urge to fold the entire thing, instead ripping off bites, each one revealing new surprise dimensions in umami.
Before or after a show at, say, The Garage, a visit to the Black Axe is mandatory. They have lager and ale in cans, shots of Jamesons, and house red and white wine. If you have to leave your name and wait in a nearby pub for a table, so be it. Just follow the cocks and don’t tell Gene.