First impressions are not, in fact, unpromising. Sarastro is in a great cool hall, in which everything sparkles and glitters, like the crypt of some stupendous mosque. "Big Boss", the very model of a Turkish maitre d, ushers you into a bar area, with low tables, and cushion-covered banquettes, intended, perhaps, to denote "The East". But this is madness. Two rows of large frilly lampshades run the length of the room; chairs are either gilt or plush-velvet, as is one wall. A couple of chapels have been ransacked to supply some raised galleries; frescoes and icons crowd the walls. This is how Ali Baba's cave might have looked - on mescaline.
Sarastro serves "international and Turkish cuisine", but the emphasis if firmly on such staples as deep-fried Camembert, roast duck with orange sauce, vegetarian pasta, and melon with fresh peach salad and Cointreau dressing - clearly a dessert, although, inexplicably, listed with the starters.
Many of the meat dishes, like "knuckle of lamb Anatolian style", were off the night we went, and although you could not say that about what we did eat, it is hard to say anything more. We decided it was not worth complaining about the fact that two of the four fresh asparagus my companion was given for her first course were missing their heads. If you want to watch luvvies in their natural habitat, or savour a tremendous display of kitsch, you might still want to go to Sarastro - but maybe only to drink.
Determined to do something right by Turkey, I set off the following evening to Stoke Newington, which has a large Turkish community. This corner of north-east London now has a little cluster of absurdly cheap Turkish restaurants, including one, Istanbul Iskembecisi, which, for those with a taste for such things, specialises in tripe. My first choice, though, would certainly be Mangal.
A little hole-in-the-wall, Mangal cannot compete with Sarastro in appearance, but, with its pretty blue-grey tiled walls, high white ceiling, and simple kitchen furniture, it's infinitely better. The place could not possibly sit more than 20, although there is also a take-away service, more popular than the restaurant with the local Turks, that keeps the waiter and single chef busy. At its centre is a charcoal grill. You can usually get at least one braised meat dish at Mangal, and the night we were there vegetarians could have eaten beans cooked in tomatoes or a plate of stewed aubergines served with salad and yoghurt. But it is grilled meat that takes pride of place. As any one who has suffered at the hands of an amateur knows, cooking meat on a grill is an art. At Mangal, they have got it down to perfection. There is no menu, you just point to the flesh of your choice. We both went for the mixed grill, which included lamb chops, quails, Adana Kofte (a spicy lamb mince) and Kemikli Pilic Sis (minced chicken with herbs and garlic) all served with two kinds of delectable bread and a really fresh salad of tomatoes, lettuce, young turnip, and flat-leaf parsley. Our mixed grills proved obscenely big; I would recommend the quail or the simple lamb kebab. Mangal does not serve alcohol, and, although you can bring a bottle free of charge, we stuck to a glass of yoghurt. There was only one dessert on offer: delicious pastries shaped liked little sea cucumbers and a glass of tea. We had eaten extravagantly and the bill came to pounds 23 - normally it would come to less than pounds 10 a head
Sarastro, 126 Drury Lane, London, WC2 (0171- 836 0101) lunch and supper, seven days a week; all credit cards accepted. Three courses without alcohol, pounds 15-22 per head. Mangal, 10 Arcola St, E8 (0171-275 8981), noon till midnight, seven days a week, no credit cardsReuse content