Lee Tiernan’s Black Axe Mangal restaurant is indefinable, divisive, and thrillingly delicious.

By Jay Cheshes
September 03, 2020
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Credit: Adrian Lourie / Evening Standard / Eyevine / Redux

Some restaurants are designed for the masses, but Black Axe Mangal was proudly created with a few niche diners in mind. “If you don’t like loud, raucous restaurants that serve spicy food without prioritizing a particular cuisine, please do not come to BAM,” writes its chef and co-owner Lee Tiernan, throwing down the gauntlet in his debut cookbook (Phaidon, 2019). With its tight quarters, bold flavors, free hand with offal and chiles, and garish décor—bright plastic tablecloths and skateboard-deck wall art—his north London restaurant has become a cult favorite among his food-industry peers, often packed with visiting chefs.

Though the restaurant was originally conceived as a spin on a Turkish-style kebab shop, flavors and influences these days come from all over the place, a fact the chef candidly acknowledges. “We’re genre fluid, cuisine neutral,” he says. So there might be a doughnut on the menu filled with foie gras and blackberry jam, or grilled quail served with sambal oelek, or a fried pig’s tail encrusted in dried baby shrimp.

Although the food can be challenging, the restaurant itself often feels like a party, a roaring good time fueled by cocktails developed by Tiernan’s friend Ryan Chetiyawardana (known professionally as Mr. Lyan, one of the top bartenders in London), like his Slavic spin on a pickleback (vodka shot with a beet juice and horseradish chaser and smoked eel and walnut bite).

Tiernan often borrows ideas from chefs he admires, crediting their influence on his cooking. Shortly after opening five years ago, he introduced an homage to the incendiary Szechuan-spiced chicken wings served at Mission Chinese Food in New York City and San Francisco. “The level of spice caused a lot of people distress,” says Tiernan. “We had a lot of complaints, which made me think I was doing something right.”

His signature flatbreads with squid ink and lamb offal, blistered in a wood-fired oven emblazoned with a mural depicting the 1979 film The Warriors, are based on a dough recipe from another American friend, Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. “I’ve always been quite honest about where I got all these influences from,” Tiernan says. “If it hadn’t been for someone’s generosity with their knowledge and time, the bread at Black Axe Mangal would be sh--.”

Tiernan, who grew up in a melting-pot south London neighborhood, learned his way around kidneys, livers, and snouts during the 11 years he spent working for Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver at pioneering nose-to-tail restaurant St. John, where he got a job fresh out of school. Black Axe Mangal, his solo debut, started as a pop-up, installed behind a nightclub in Copenhagen in the summer of 2014. Tiernan, who brought over his own smoker from London, promised to hand out 50 free ox-heart and smoked-lamb-shoulder kebabs on opening night. “We were expecting 20 people to show up,” he says. “About an hour before we opened, there was a line of at least 250 people down the block ... It was horrible; I’m not going to lie.” The London restaurant opened to instant acclaim the following year. Instead of riffs on kebabs, though, Tiernan decided to focus on whatever makes him happy. “We can go as far as our imagination lets us.”