Diners get a taste for premium doners

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Pitiful pittas are out as experienced chefs bring high-quality kebabs to the capital
Pitiful pittas are out as experienced chefs bring high-quality kebabs to the capital

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Kebabs have become the latest fast food category to be given a makeover with a number of new players in London exploring the potential of the traditionally late-night staple.

The meat and pitta dish, which has long been the go-to post-pub snack of the British drinker, is being redefined in the capital, with some highly experienced chefs from renowned restaurants even trying their hand at them.

Black Axe Mangal for example, is the brainchild of Lee Tiernan, the former head chef of St John Bread and Wine. The kebab concept started life as a pop-up in Copenhagen, but Tiernan has now moved it to a 22-cover site in Islington.

Opened late last month, Black Axe Mangal serves an eclectic selection of dishes inspired by Turkish grill restaurants with an emphasis on freshly cooked breads, offal and lesser-used cuts of meat. Dishes include Chinese duck doner kebab and anchovy-crusted pork jowl.

Early next year, Ed Brunet and Stephen Tozer will open Le Bab in Soho’s Carnaby Street area. Brunet cooked at Le Gavroche and will be joined in his new kitchen by two more alumni from Michel Roux Jr’s famed Mayfair restaurant, former sous chef Manuel Canales Garces and former chef de partie Angus Bell.

Located on the second floor of Kingly Court,Le Bab will serve an ambitious menu that will include a selection of individual and sharing kebabs, including a roe deer shish with damson and isot pepper jam, cavolo nero kimchi, artichoke crisps and game mayo; chicken shawarma with turban squash hummus, chicken crackling, winter pickles, Le Bab toum and biber chilli; and pig’s head and its crackling, with kohlrabi and carrot slaw, red onion and pomegranate molasses.

The look of the restaurant will reference its Middle Eastern and eastern Mediterranean cooking style.

Camden Town Brewery, meanwhile, has opened a kebab shop close to its main brewery and pub operation called Camden’s Daughter. It serves kebabs made from sustainably sourced chicken and lamb alongside weekly specials and a large selection of beers from its owner as well as other brewers.

To some extent, the UK’s burgeoning burrito space has paved the way for a branded kebaboperator and the emergence of a national player seems a distinct possibility, particularly given the UK’s familiarity with the product. The premium kebab scene is booming in some parts of the US, including the Mid West, where shawarma restaurant brand Naf Naf Grill operates 17 sites – not least because the dish has the potential to be a relatively healthy form of fast food.

Chifafa, a recently opened kebab operation in Clerkenwell, has the feel of a scalable concept and has borrowed elements from the Mexican fast-casual space with kebabs wrapped in tin foil. Its menu includes one-day-marinated British veal with feta, mint and dill yogurt and slow-cooked shoulder of lamb with amba (a kind of mango sauce), fresh herbs, feta and red cabbage slaw.

Comptoir Libanais founder Tony Kitous has explored a branded format that serves only shawarmas, a variety of kebab that originated in Lebanon. His Shawa fast-casual restaurant opened in Westfield London in 2009 and he eventually intends to roll it out.

“The US has done very well with burritos but they are heavy and full of carbs. Shawarma is healthy fast food,” says Kitous. The tricky bit, he explains, is severing the association with booze-fuelled late-night eating. “Unfortunately, kebabs are something people eat when they’re out on the piss,” he says.

This article appears in the November 2017 edition of Restaurant magazine, out today. Subscribe here​ or view the digital edition here​.

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