Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Berber & Q, Shuk Shuk, The Good Egg, Black Axe Mangal - new Middle Eastern restaurants in Hackney

Middle Eastern food had its big moment in British culture about a decade ago when Ottolenghi hit the scene and brought his generous, zingy, lavish Levantine food to the masses in his London cafe-restaurant-delis and through his eponymous debutcookbook. Soon you could buy tahini, za'atar, sumac and proper bunches of fresh herbs everywhere, and our larders all got a bit more interesting.

In that time we've seen handy little chains like Yalla Yalla and Comptoir Libanaise popularise mezze, and the Lebanese restaurants of Edgware Road and the Mangal grills of Green Lanes and Dalston have continued to do their delicious thing. The spirit of Ottolenghi has made it into people's cooking repertoire and into the salad counter in many cafes, but only a handful of restaurants – such as Fitzrovia's Honey & Co – have continued to really push and innovate within the Levantine range to bring exciting Middle East inspired cuisine to restaurant tables.

That was until 2015. A new generation of Middle Eastern restaurants have sprung up across London. North East London, and Hackney in particular, is home to a number of them. Best among them are Haggerston's Berber & QShuk Shuk BBQ in Hackney Wick, Highbury's Black Axe Mangal and Stoke Newington's The Good Egg. Read on and find out why.

Berber & Q
Berber & Q was the first of the bunch to open, in a big space under the arches in Haggerston. Loud house music pumps out, it's dark and buzzy with a clubby vibe. For restaurants are the new clubs, as Hackney gets a bit more old and moneyed. The menu comprises meats and mezze with a heavy emphasis on grilling and smoking on the barbe-Q. Q-ueue you will also have to do, as it's terribly popular. Rock up at 7 and they'll probably call you an hour later to tell your table is ready.

But it's all worth it. The barbecued cauliflower 'shwarma' (the most 2015 of dishes) with pomegranate and tahini was the best I've had, and all the vegetarian mezze was swimming in wow factor: the beetroot came with whipped feta, orange and hazelnuts, smoked aubergine with browned butter and pine nuts, a whole smoked garlic head, home made pickles, green beans with garlic and preserved lemon.

The barbecued meat selection was excellent. We had a portion of their homemade merguez sausages, some 'hand pulled' lamb mechoui – essentially an authentic and delicious version of doner meat, and a sticky, rich slab of pork belly cooked in a pomegranate barbecue sauce. It's all served with fresh herbs, grilled vegetables, flat breads and home-made garlic and chilli sauces. All of this is topped off with a great cocktail menu that makes the most of Middle Eastern flavours – think pistachio syrups, sumac, rose harissa in the Bloody Mary, saffron infused rum.

Shuk Shuk BBQ
Shuk Shuk BBQ in Hackney Wick was opened as a collaboration between the local craft brewery Crate and Berber & Q, and is so very Hackney Wick: street food kitchen, kombucha bar and craft beer bar in a two floor renovated warehouse with ping pong tables, sofas and 'mess hall' (i.e. communal) style tables. The menu has much of the same meats as Berber & Q HQ (I opt again for the lamb mechoui, but try their smoky pulled chicken this time).

The sides here are more of a fusion between US and Middle Eastern BBQ – potato salad is infused with saffron in a nod simultaneously to Iran and the Deep South, the slaw has tahini, yoghurt and fresh herbs through it, and the mac'n'cheese is made with Balkan kashikaval cheese, with a herby crumb running through it, and lovely crunchy bits on top. The sides and topping really made it – help yourself to zhoug – a herby, garlicky green sauce, their sweet and spicy BBQ sauce, or the ultra garlicky garlic and yoghurt sauce You also get lightly pickled onions, pickled chilli peppers, rocket and fresh herbs, harissa, and a cumin salt to sprinkle over it.

Black Axe Mangal
Fusion is also on the table at BlackAxe Mangal at Highbury Corner, but here it's taking the Turkish/Kurdish mangal grill as a starting point, mixing in influences from Head Chef Lee Tiernan's days at nose-to-tail trailbalzers St Johns, mixed in with Asian influences, spice mixes from (my absolute favourite fun fusion restaurant) Mission ChineseFood in San Francisco.

The menu is short with a small selection of flat breads, interesting sides, and larger main dishes. We have the lamb offal flat bread, which is their spin on lahmacun. The offal is only lightly pungent but fully flavoured, and it's topped with lightly pickled pink onions, parsley, garlic and chilli sauces. My offally sceptical friend is initially hesitant, but the chewy dough and perfect balance of flavours means we have more competition than we bargained for.

We could take or leave the kale with preserved lemon, but the century egg with cod roe and crispy pig ear is one of the most remarkable dishes I've tried. It conjures up the taste of egg mayonnaise with bacon and cress, but with rich, deep umami flavours from the core ingredients. A charred hispi cabbage with fermented shrimps is buttery, smoky and so so savoury.

The two main meat dishes are nods to mangal classics - the Bakken special is a ludicrously delicious lamb chop with a tomato and pepper sauce, crunchy lentils, yoghurt and chilli. But the only choice for me was the Mission Chinese spiced lamb doner - a zingy, asian-y spiced mixture coating and dusting the offaly lamb, served on a flatbread with lettuce and cucumber, topped with a yoghurty sauce and crispy onion. 

Like Berber & Q and Shuk Shuk BBQ, Black Axe Mangal puts the party into Middle Eastern food, with fun cocktails (love a Lagerita) and a heavy metal soundtrack. 

The Good Egg
The Good Egg is a bit more sedate and traditional in its presentation, and mashes international Jewish and middle eastern influences with nods to Montreal and New York at the same time as Jerusalem, Iraq and Eastern Europe. It's from an ex Ottolenghi team and located on Stoke Newington Church Street, opening after much anticipation to queues of people hungry for brunch.

They bake their own bagels and challa, which are the most delicious I've had, served with nice olive oil and a za'atar mix. They also cure their own beef for pastrami, which I had in their Good Egg Burger (plenty of bone marrow in the patty for extra pungency, and it comes topped with an egg and pickles and served with zoo fries, which have lots of yemenite herb chilli zhoug on top) and is also available on platters, as a big short rib in its own right, or on pastrami chilli cheese fries. Yum.

Like with the other new middle eastern restaurants to open in North East London, the Good Egg is good for sharing, with lots of smaller dishes for the table. We ate burned aubergine with zhoug (again!), beetroot with sour cream, dill and poppy seed, a whole roast cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate (as I said, the most 2015 dish, and a fine version of it) and buttermilk fried chicken with za'atar and a chilli honey dip (greaseless crispy coating, juicy inside).

Brunch is supposed to be a big deal, with lots of inspired egg options - a shakshuka, burned aubergine in pita, pastrami meat hash, challa french toast, pastrami hash. I intend to try it out in the new year.