Arcola Street’s eponymous theatre may have recently moved down the road to Ashwin Street but there can be few more dramatic sights in Dalston than the bustle of black-clad waiters around the huge, smoke-billowing grill in Mangal 1 on a busy night (and that’s most of them).
Approaching the restaurant down its gloomy side street location, you’ll notice its back-lit red plastic sign – the sort that might just as well be advertising ‘Wines and Spirits’ or ‘Fried Chicken’ – but get a little closer and you’ll catch a glimpse of the smoke-shrouded grill and general hustle and bustle inside. There’s often a cluster of people waiting for tables just inside the doorway. Wait your turn until one of the waiters – exclusively male (at least front of house) – beckons you forward. You’ll see kilim rugs pinned at jaunty angles on the walls, alongside rather old-fashioned images of Turkey (including one of a shawled woman sitting on a donkey amongst shaggy sheep) but most of all you’ll notice that most people’s eyes are turned down, towards their plates: this place is not about the décor.
It’s not the warmest of restaurants on a cold night, so try to avoid sitting near the door. Of the two main dining areas, the one nearer to the grill is the more atmospheric. The other has a ‘bar’ area which, in this bring-your-own establishment, serves only as a storage point for the wine glasses the waiters will bring to your table. If you sit within sight of the grill you can watch the guy who sits behind it, tending the kebabs and vegetables as they grill, seemingly unperturbed by the heat and the smoke. He brings to mind a piano player, but he’s flicking over cutlets and chops rather than tickling the ivories: clearly a maestro, all the same.
The staff are not, on the face of it, the friendliest bunch, but this is because they are concentrating on maintaining efficiency in what is frequently a heaving restaurant. If you can muster a bit of Turkish then you’ll make a friend for the evening, and perhaps gain yourself a freebie (see below). The clientele are diverse, which is testament to the simple excellence of the food, whilst the b-y-o policy means there can be the odd boisterous group.
What kind of food do they specialise in? The clue’s in the name. ‘Mangal’ means something like ‘barbecue’ whilst ‘ocakbasi’ means ‘grillroom’. You get the picture. But what really makes Mangal 1 special is that all the accompaniments and sides to the main, meaty event – the various, excellent lamb, chicken and quail kebabs – are executed flawlessly, too. The basket of bread alone (no charge) is satisfying: soft and warm with a chewy crust. The ‘side’ salad will put many other restaurants to shame.
Try sharing a starter of mix meze (£6), which comes on a large plate, with each of the four components taking up one quarter, like paints on a palette. Each is superb. The yoghurt is thick and rich and scattered with a seasoning of herbs and chilli, the hummus is satisfyingly rough textured, the spicy ezme salad zinging with chives. But the corner of the plate which will likely receive most fork tussling is that occupied by the patlican salata (similar to baba ganoush), whose smoky combination of aubergine and peppers grilled until their flesh barely hold together is, frankly, perfection. One alternative starter is the lahmacun (£2), a thin, pizza-like base topped with minced lamb and onions. These often run out early in the evening.
A main of yogurtlu sis sees layers of lamb sis pieces, and cubes of bread cooked in butter until they have a distinct caramel taste, topped with yoghurt, tomato sauce and a long green chilli, scorched here and there on the grill. The side salad comes as a dense mound of rocket, red cabbage, iceberg lettuce, mooli, gherkins, grated carrot and onions marinated in pomegranate dressing. As an accompaniment to the smoky, buttery main, it could not be bettered, its crunch and tanginess an ideal contrast to the main dish’s richness.
There are four of these yogurtlu dishes cooked in yoghurt, tomato sauce and butter (all £10.50): beyti (ground lamb or chicken cooked on a skewer), sis or chicken (tavuk) sis, and adana köfte. The main kebab section (£9.50-11.00) takes in various cuts of lamb, chicken and quail, or go for one of the mixed kebab plates (£13.50 and £16). Vegetarians should not despair – try that patlican salata (see above) as a main (£6) or one of the other four options, including stuffed vine leaves (£8) and taze fasulye green bean stew (£8).
There are just two desserts: baklava (£3), those dense, syrupy parcels of filo pastry and pistachio nuts which go fantastically well with a short, grainy Turkish coffee, or the sütlaç rice pudding. Flash a bit of Turkish to the waiters and you might get that baklava on the house. It doesn’t cost anything to say tesekkürler (thanks)…
Soft drinks run from £1-£2 and include the Turkish yoghurt drink ayran. Teas and coffees are £1.50. Alcohol is bring-your-own and there’s an off licence handily located round the corner on Stoke Newington Road.
The theatre may have moved out of little Arcola Street but as long as Mangal 1 keeps doing what it’s doing (and grilling what it’s grilling) then you can be sure the punters will keep treading its boards.