“What on earth are you doing in Cockfosters”, came the incredulous, softly mocking question.
The knee-jerk response – had I offered it – would have run something like this:
“The reason I’m in Cockfosters, you cast-iron, hundred-carat, natural fibred git, is that I’m returning to a Turkish restaurant that is doing things a bit differently, with a swagger and a flicked middle finger to tradition, and I’m liking their moves very much. You dozy turd.”
The vituperative language is Stephen Fry on A Bit of Fry and Laurie from the late 80s, lifted from one of the Vox Pops in between sketches, but the sentiment is exactly the one I wanted to toss back as a return.
Skewd came onto the radar while I was helping judge the British Kebab Awards earlier this year, the chef/director Mazlum Demir winning the Chef of the Year award. One of the judges urged me to make the trip to see what was going in EN4. A quick look at the slick website and edgy modern logo offered a few clues: attitude, considered branding, and a touch of cockiness. Right, off to Cockyfosters….
We’ve seen the moves that Turkish cuisine has been making over the last few years, with spots like Babaji Pide and Yosma offering a shinier, reimagined, highly styled, and modern approach to the Turkish proposition (a world away from the identikit Turkish mangals in London), as well as the constant iterations of the ‘posh kebab’ (out, damned spot) and a slew of operators piggy backing onto the momentum of all things Turk. From köfte and manti dumplings, to shish kebabs and lahmacun (the lamb flatbread at Galvin Restaurants appears on the bill as ‘lahmacun’), and from gözleme to nightmarish döner (German Doner Kebab, my fez festooned head and sharpened skewer is pointed accusingly towards you), there is a lot of love out there for all morsels Turkish.
‘Anatolians with Attitude’ is the credo that Skewd emblazon on their menus, inspiring an instinctive ‘oooh, hark at them’ knee-jerk reaction from this half-Turk. Ok, let’s see what you’ve got. Come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough….
A monster of a mangal dominates the back room, a first look at the meat grilling on the coals revealing huge chunks of meat on each skewer that look a couple of notches above the usual Turkish fare, both in terms of size and quality. A battalion of cooks are on the go, a separate space further back with a group feverishly chopping ingredients for their sparky salad, studded with pomegranate jewels.
Grilled sea bass and sea bream spit and hiss on the grill, ‘fresh from Bilingsgate’. There’s name checking of other suppliers, including meat from ‘a small family farm in Yorkshire’. Fuel is ‘British woodland coal’. A wall is emblazoned with soundbites and Skewd facts, featuring the big ‘Zirh Biçak’ blade that the chefs mince the meat with, and the age of the balsamic that they use….you won’t get any of this chat down at the mangals in Green Lanes. Fresh attitude, indeed.
Meals kick off with complimentary ‘Balon Ekmek’ (‘balloon bread’), a thin air filled dome topped with nigella and sesame seeds, baked fresh in the stone oven in view out front, where chef kneads and moulds dough for the pide and mini-lahmacun (cute).
A first visit is a solo weekday lunch where I check out their Adana kebab game, the spicy minced meat skewer originating from south-eastern Turkey which has its own protected status, and always a good indicator of kitchen skills. Anatolian attitude? Bring it.
They brought it, alright. A contender for one of the best Adana in town, and one that looks like it has pumped iron over thousands of reps at the gym: plump, bristling with the char of the grill and Turkish pepper flakes, it’s a depth charge of succulence and seasoning, oozing its fatty lamb juices onto the thinnest sheet of lavash style bread (here’s that styling, minimalist, a solitary drape of cooked red pepper the only garnish). Cocky Adana. 1-0.
Now what’s this, bulgur kofte on the hot starters? These bulgur wheat little torpedoes, stuffed with minced meat, onions and spices before being fried, are rarely seen on London’s Turk restaurant menus (more usually seen in the North London Cypriot/Turkish/Greek bakeries), and similar to the Levantine ‘Kibbeh’. A favourite of mine as a kid, the skills to make these usually lie with the Turkish equivalent of an Italian ‘Nonna’ knocking out homemade gnocchi – we only knew one woman in our family that made them herself. They make an excellent beer snack, a first couple of bites, delicately scented with warm spice.
Another visit for a mixed shish and those fat chunks seen on the grill previously don’t disappoint: juicy, joyous, seasoned hectically…in a good way. Kebabs are served on long thin plates the length of the skewer they were grilled on, atop that thin layer of lavash bread: eye-catching presentation. Mini-lahmacun are purrdy little things (£5.90 may make some wince), but the minced lamb pide delivers the same lahmacun-esque topping of minced lamb fillet, and is a more satisfying plate for £9.90.
The stretch of Cockfosters Parade will never inspire day trippers to linger, but the thrum in the room on every visit indicates regular custom, a loyal phalanx of North Londoners. Where are they all coming from? On a third trip I go with Stelios, a Greek Cypriot friend (technically the enemy, but our generation are all mates these days, dontcha know), a long standing resident of Southgate since the 1970s, a short hop away.
He gives me the inside track: “Mate, a lot of this crowd are heading in from Brookmans Park and Hadley Wood, twenty minutes up the road. Moneyed. Look at the cars outside.” A quick search reveals that Brookmans Park was number five in a recent list of England’s twenty richest villages. Ah, there we have it. Skewd have nailed (skewered?) a captive audience, and pricing reflects that. In its own way, it has become a destination restaurant for this part of ‘Norf’ London. “Rich kids in here too. Most stress they’ve had today is wondering when their next pedicure will be.” I laugh, but I think he may be right.
This time we try a couple of less ‘trad’ dishes to see how these shape up against the solid traditional stuff. Seared scallops with parsnip mash feature beautifully sweet, spankingly fresh scallops, but the accompanying mash (swirled artfully), calls to mind Cow & Gate (4-6 mths), needing a grind or four of salt. Too sweet. Fat tentacles of octopus are cooked in the Bertha charcoal oven, but while wading through this, one thought keeps hammering at me: could have had another bloody fantastic lamb/chicken/Adana skewer instead. Panic. It’s fine, I immediately order the ‘Super Sub’ Adana. “Best dish of the night", Stelios offers. Phew.
Everything from the 'Hot Coal Productions' (ballsy heading, I like it) section of the menu, is fantastic. The skewers coming off the mangal deliver the goods in all their coal smoke kissed beauty.
Lemons served in white meshing á la The Wolseley, Scott’s, and J. Sheekey; Voss mineral water (la-dee-daa, tall bottle, pricey); earpieces for managers keeping step with the kitchen; frequently changing specials that take chances and feature playful (risky) flourishes like ‘aniseed sauce’ – signifiers of what’s happening here. Someone gives a not insignificant fuck about the details.
Yes, they see themselves as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘pushing boundaries’, but manage to walk that line without veering into wanky ‘fine dining’ territory. Will you spend a lot less at the old school Turkish gaffs elsewhere in London? Yes, of course you will, but that’s not the point: Skewd are pushing the experience of dining at those restaurants into different, edgier territory.
Anatolians with attitude? Turkish swagger, for sure: and that, you hundred-carat git, is why I’ve been returning to Cockfosters. How’s that for attitude.
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