Brat, a breathless tweet from BigHospitality announced last week, is “a serious restaurant, with some serious kit and an equally serious approach to sourcing".
Well, of course it is. Serious is the default mode for London restaurants these days – think new openings and you think immediately of solemn ingredient fetishists who'd sooner die than serve a tomato out of peak season; all of them doing sincere and manly things to po-faced proteins over hardwood combusting without a trace of frivolity under an authentic, genuine cast-iron grill.
I’m being flippant, of course (no single-origin turbot for me!). OBVIOUSLY a heightened appreciation for both technique and sourcing is hugely welcome in a country that has trailed behind the rest of the world in these areas for what feels like forever; it would be immensely rich of me to write various rude things about Michael Deacon’s insincerity, only then to pivot and roll my eyes with exasperation when someone says something well-meaning but a teensy bit too earnest.
The only issue – and it’s a minor one; I enjoyed Brat very much – is that seriousness, by its very nature, brooks very few alternatives. Which leaves you (OK, us) at risk of ruling other, potentially interesting things out. As Ugly Delicious made clear, insisting there's only one "right" approach to cooking something leaves a lot of very edible, maybe even superior things on the table uneaten; restricting your definition of "proper" restaurants only to ones that tick the relevant boxes means you may be overlooking other cool, equally good, maybe better places.
Places, say, like Black Axe Mangal and The Laughing Heart, which – now whole years after opening – show no sign of growing old gracefully. The music at Black Axe is still LOUD; the dick and vagina art is still there on the floor; the drinks offering is still the sort of stuff that your wasteman ex-boyfriend would have hanging around his gross one-bed (Jameson and IPA, mostly). And if The Laughing Heart isn’t quite so obviously adolescent, it still has something of an image problem. Due, no doubt, to its ridiculous-for-London 2am licence, it can sometimes seem like more of a weekend late-night hangout rather than a restaurant for all seasons and occasions – somewhere you go for a good time, not a long time.
In both cases, the initial impression would be correct, but wouldn’t tell the whole story. These are *serious* restaurants, even if they're not, you know, serious restaurants. There is a steel spine of proper, genuine, honest-to-goodness capital-t Technique running down the backs of both of them – quality on the other side of the pass that most restaurants would die to have.
Black Axe, in fact, may be the most misunderstood restaurant in London: the attention to detail needed to pull this stuff off, sprinkles and all, is amazing. The name of the spice blend used to coat its fried chicken makes explicit the link with San Francisco and New York’s Mission Chinese Food: as in Danny Bowien’s restaurants, the sheer hyperbolic mania of the final result belies the effort and skill that goes into it. Some of the cooking here is next-level fantastic: most chefs dream of being able to bake stuff like their house flatbread, or create a sandwich with the heft-to-pleasure ratio of their rueben, or to do shoestring fries as fine and crisp and flavoursome as those that come with it. It's only getting better as it goes, too, broadening the range of techniques on show to breathe new life into the menu: that Mission-spiced chicken now comes with zippy pickled radishes that cut through the batter like a knife; a recent addition of Arbroath smokie brandade with egg yolk, monksbeard and Arbroath smokie cream is an instant classic to rival the lamb offal or squid ink flatbreads.
If Black Axe is the most misunderstood restaurant in the city, The Laughing Heart may be the most underappreciated. Certainly, it boasts the most undervalued kitchen in town: a veritable special forces team, four strong, capable of doing things a brigade twice their size could only dream of. With talent like that at Tom Anglesea's disposal, you can turn your hand to anything – even so, it is sometimes astonishing at the range of skill on display. It is a rare – practically unique – pleasure to see dishes so technically accomplished outside a Michelin-starred restaurant; it is an even rarer – definitely unique – pleasure to see them sharing the same menu real estate as creations that borrow, magpie-(and Magpie-)like from every new and interesting contemporary trend going.
Three dishes on a recent visit were the place in miniature: a Scandi-style potato “taco” topped with perfect Galician octopus and horseradish (such a clever combination, highlighting how un-fishy and properly meaty good octopus is); a Xi’an-spiced pig’s head pie with brown butter gravy that was a perfect synthesis of Anglesea’s time in Chinese restaurants and his more gutsy nose-to-tail Anglo Saxon heritage; then, to finish, a perfect millefeuille of house-made puff pastry, its cream flavoured with juniper. It’s London's equivalent of Momofuku Ssam Bar, really: somewhere without a single fine-dining air or grace where you can nevertheless rock up and be simply, unambiguously, fine-dining astonished.
And yet neither is full, or at least not as full as they should be. I say this in the knowledge that it is a weird thing to hope for: I genuinely wish it were harder to get a table outside peak hours. A team like The Laughing Heart’s need to be in constant action to justify the care they take and the effort that goes into writing and cooking a menu that changes daily; Black Axe’s buzz is mellowed somewhat when the room is only half-full (those Islington rates can't be cheap either). Those considerations aside, they simply deserve to be among the busiest places in the city – the cooking is that good, that often.
Much as I’d recommend London’s modern British icons and Shoreditch nu-Thai to a first-time visitor, it is these two restaurants, plus P Franco, that I find myself wanting to revisit most frequently, and find myself back at most often. Just glancing at a menu at each of them fills me with excitement: I am incapable of reading a provocation like “Crispy Fucking Rabbit” or the cheeky eat me! wink of “Pâté in a Bun” without diving in headfirst, and the sly, self-aware humour of both is core to their appeal. Black Axe in particular surfs on layers of irony packed more tightly than any millefeuille; this translates to a delicacy of touch, to strong convictions lightly held, to a refusal to be hidebound by any single approach or (ugh) concept.
Total seriousness has its rewards, of course. I am immensely grateful that London has somewhere like Brat – its turbot with a bottle of old white Rioja will be one of the highlights of the year for me, in terms of grown-up restaurant experiences. But I’m even more grateful that Black Axe and The Laughing Heart exist. We need places like them to exist, in fact, as the scarily intense-sounding Hide follows Brat and all manner of four-letter noun-concepts in the long chain of Serious London Restaurants.
We need them to exist, if only as a reminder – both of when and where it truly pays to be serious, and of the novel, imaginative, thrilling things that can happen when we aren’t.