Humans invented cooking by putting meat and vegetables over a fire. But while they may not have realised it immediately, the invention of grilling is also the invention of advertising. And even in our days of Instagram and ingredient fetishism, there is still potency in seeing and smelling the rising smoke, feeling the heat from a bed of coals.
Meze Mangal fully embraces this primal attraction, putting it front and centre for all its guests. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the decor without checking my photos. Besides the very friendly front of house, the only thing I notice is the mangal – long, decorated, and spewing smoke from a long row of skewered meats. And to the back, flames wink and dance in a wood-fired oven.
Because these two beasts do most of the cooking at Meze Mangal, the menu is simple despite its apparent length. Basically, you choose what you want, it is taken out of the long display case and grilled or baked, and then it’s on your table, invariably cuddling with salads. Simple and easy, really. It’s almost like anyone can run a Turkish restaurant. Except the reason it’s so easy in the restaurant is that a lot of the work is done beforehand. What determines how the meat will go has happened a long time ago, in the slow work of time and marinade and seasoning.
Before going on to the meat, though, it only seems right to order meze in a place that’s named after them. The cold meze platter is a broad mix of refreshing, light flavours, even where you may not expect them – such as in tender green beans and squelchy, slippery aubergines and peppers, both of which are prepared with large amounts of olive oil. Cacık, yoghurt with cucumber and a little garlic and herbs, is a rich, soothing balm.
The cold meze platter also comes with a choice of a hot meze, and we choose hellim for it. The cheese is one of a few types that does not melt easily; instead it gains a modest but crisp skin. Having dried out a little with grilling also makes it springy, almost squeaky, with a broad saltiness.
Çöp şiş is something like satay in concept, though not much else. The Turkish name for this dish literally means ‘scrap skewers’, no doubt a way to use up the odds and ends of lamb. The resulting pile of little chunks is unapologetically muttony in flavour; it has been rubbed with spices, but they are a quiet lot and serve to embrace rather than conceal its nature. Some will probably run from this dish, but I’d run towards it.
Lahmacun is the Turkish variation on the evergreen theme of ‘nice stuff baked with a flatbread base’. Other such things like pizzas have since gone change-crazy, but lahmacun is as it ever was – minced lamb with lots of onions on a flatbread, baked until the bottom is ready to crack and snap. Wrapping lettuce in it helps lighten the richness, but once again lamb is allowed to take central stage, and actually tastes a little like the filling of a good roti john made even more fragrant with coriander.
In tavuk beyti, the spices don’t just embrace chicken, but amplify it. The grill’s heat has changed this a bit more than it has the lamb, and the inside is drippingly moist even while the outside is singed, its garlicky taste even more distinct. That it comes with a dollop of cool, thick Turkish yoghurt certainly doesn’t hurt.
Even vegetarians get a niche here. Güveç is a dish of vegetables baked under a blanket of cheese and liberal amounts of garlic, both of which dominate. The vegetables themselves contribute a variety of textures – aubergine yielding, mushrooms and peppers still crunchy and spongy.
The indecisive but hungry are favoured at Meze Mangal with the mixed kebab, which has a bit of everything – all of which is deeply suffused with its own seasonings, onions and garlic in particular. Some are of chicken, especially nice wing midjoints with crackly skins. But the rest is a tour of lamb, from lamb chops that stretch and curl without being too tough to the flakier, nuttier meat of the ribs. There’s adana kebab, coarse-grained and supple, and even a kidney which easily defeats me with its deep, animal reek. But besides the kidney, everything is cleaned off the plate.
Dessert is sütlaç, rice pudding that has taken a turn in the oven to obtain a scorched, smoky and sticky top that goes over a thick, creamy, pleasing mess, the rice soft and half melded into its sauce. Again, being served cold and simply flavoured makes this dish feel a lot lighter than it is.
And now that I have reviewed the photos, it occurs to me how lovely in an old school way Meze Mangal really is. Tradition is absolutely dominant here; they had a redecoration two years ago, but the decor has ignored the last several years of modern restaurant design, which is all for the best. There are tablecloths, high-backed seats and proper cutlery, and sometimes these really are things you want, if only as a contrast to the happy, often messy eating here. It’s easy to leave a place thinking you have eaten, even that you have eaten well. But at Meze the feeling is a little nicer – that you have indulged yourself.
245 Lewisham Way
London SE4 1XF (map)
Daily, noon – midnight