Photo, and all others in this article, by Hebe Hancock
F.K.A.B.A.M, Formerly Known As Black Axe Mangal, is outlandish, boisterous and brave; yet perhaps too compact.
Located in a tiny space on Highbury Corner, Islington, Black Axe Mangal boasts a clear passion for open-flame cooking, offal, and flatbreads, all infused with strong elements of heavy metal and skate culture. The walls are adorned with graphic art, some of it quite eerie and eccentric, establishing the brand as anarchists before the menu even arrives. Don’t expect your basic restaurant experience — they are not one to follow the rules.
Head chef Lee Tiernan spent 10 years at culinary institution St John learning the classics, before venturing out to express his own unique creative perspective. St John notoriously specialises in the art of nose-to-tail eating, a concept which Black Axe readily adopts, pimping it with fire and fun.
After managing to secure a prime-time 8pm Friday spot, I enter Black Axe full of anticipation. The first thing I notice is the music — booming and raucous, bursting out the likes of Metallica and Queens of the Stone Age. We’re seated almost shoulder-to-shoulder with two other couples, quite literally crammed in like sardines at floral-patterned tables, which provide a strong contrast to the outlandish attitude and low-lit ambience of the joint. Admittedly, we do have to shout across to one another to converse.
The cocktail menu is limited, but timeless; we order a whiskey sour and a margarita — delicious, but then again, you can’t really go wrong with either of those. A four-course tasting menu is on offer, catered to the size of your party, at £55 a head. The set of dishes change fortnightly, and on this particular night we had the choice of the following: Crispy Fuckin’ Rabbit with Apple & Chilli, Delica Pumpkin & Smoked Ricotta Flatbread, Sichuan Smoked Pulled Pork & Flame Grilled Pig’s Heart with Mapo Tofu & Rice, and a delicate Peach & Amaretto Trifle. As if this wasn’t enough, we also ordered the Lamb Offal Flatbread from the list of bolt-ons, since I apparently have eyes bigger than my stomach. It’s also a Black Axe staple, and not a dish that I was keen to miss.
Both flatbreads were winners for me; baked in the restaurant’s enormous brick-lined grill, (which arguably takes up more room than the dining tables themselves) they ooze flavour. Charred, crisp, and dense, they almost fold under the weight of the decadent smoked meat and vegetables that adorn them. The "Crispy Fuckin' Rabbit" was exactly that - deep-fried, tender and begging to be paired with the delightfully fiery and tangy apple and chilli slaw.
You can clearly see the inspiration head chef Tiernan takes from the Turkish mangal grills that dominate the area, although the influences to dishes such as the pork are clearly just as likely to be South-East Asian as Middle Eastern. I did think that the Sichuan pork and pig heart dish was just a little confused — while both meats were smoked perfectly, I didn’t really understand the presence of the delicate tofu in such a hefty, carnivorous dish. However, perhaps that is the point entirely; the restaurant is renowned for throwing out the rulebook and creating unconventional dishes. The concluding trifle was a delightfully old school way to finish the meal: who can resist layer upon layer of sponge, fruit and custard? I left feeling considerably heavier than I arrived.
Black Axe Mangal most definitely deserves its cult following, although it behaves much more like a nightclub than a fine-dining experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the food, but found the atmosphere just a little bit too much. That said, as Jay Rayner wrote back in 2019: “BAM is not for everyone. It’s probably not for you. Or you. But you over there, you might like it”.
Visit F.K.A.B.A.M at 156 Canonbury Road, N1. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 6:00 - 10:30pm.
Edited by Talia Andrea, Editor in Chief