Existential crisis, begone. This Northcote newcomer is a life-affirming excursion into refined North African hospitality
Pierre Khodja has never strayed far from the North African flavours/French technique brief. From Canvas in Hawthorn to the Flinders Hotel and now Northcote’s Camus, he’s always been about a trademark combination of dusky North African spicing/fruit sweetness with a kind of elegant flair that raises it to a space well above rustic.
It’s his niche, and one he inhabits well. Where he is breaking new ground with Camus (named after existential philosopher Albert Camus, who was born in the same Algerian town as Khodja) is in hitting the two-speed nature of the perfect local haunt: the Palace Westgarth cinema a few doors away, which speaks directly to a thorough list of snacks that can be downed at the white marble bar without going the full meal monty.
Actually, calling them “snacks” is slightly insulting. Heroic portions are a recurring theme, so for $15 you get three fat, hockey puck-sized duck croquettes and a host of extras: jumbo capers fried on the stem, date and lime puree, more duck leg meat mixed with caramelised onion and cinnamon. The mechoui of lamb - classic street food where the lamb is steamed and pan-fried to order and served on a thin chickpea pancake that soaks up the meaty juices and the zingy fresh tabouleh - could pass as a neat dinner for one.
Our advice: divide and conquer so you can also have a stab at the sardines - firm meaty fried balls with strong cumin-accents and charry chermoula-marinated fillets thrown on the grill, unified by a caponata-esque red pepper braise known as checkchuka. Add a serve of the bouncy prawn frittata topped with non-slimy, salty fried okra too. There’s a shallow-fried bourek of brik pastry filled with kale, goats’ cheese and herbs, from which the yolk of a fried egg expertly spills – someone really ought to give the chef a stern lecture about portion control.
Over on the main menu you’ll find whole non-rubbery calamari stuffed with a delicate farce of prawn meat, sweetbreads and coriander in a bisque-style sauce with notes of saffron, cinnamon and chilli. Quail is marinated in smoked honey and cinnamon, stuffed with minced chicken and more sweetbreads and dressed with a salad that matches the bitter edge of raddichio with pistachios and dried fruit. And then there’s the goat. It's cooked for 12 hours with orange zest and cardamon, cinnamon and juniper berries, until it is lolling in a silken, unctuous sauce with fat dried apricots. It’s an austerity meat, gone to a party.
It’s good to see Northcote take another giant step away from its cheesecloth past with Camus’ understated style. Rough red brick creates tension with the slick, softly uplit marble bar; smart copper-edged chairs and a touch of neon gives its classicism a modern edge. North African references are sly and subtle rather than the full Berber rug: smoky-glassed pendant lights and a row of spices lined above the open kitchen counter. In a few weeks’ time a rear courtyard will be ready to rock as well.
The wine list at the moment stays in the territory between familiar locals (Bannockburn shiraz), some natural-leaning numbers and a few curios such as a Moroccan syrah. The record also ought to note that there are Camus-themed cocktails: Melbourne’s first bona fide philosophical drinks list since Gin Palace debuted its Luis Bunuel tribute last century. Workshop the mysteries of life over The Outsider (Four Pillars gin, elderflower, pink peppercorns) – but really, the only mystery worth workshopping is planning a return.
61 High St
|Opening hours:||Wed, Thu 6.30pm-late; Fri-Sun noon-3pm, 6.30pm-late|