19 Aug Camus, Northcote
Like the writer-philosopher that his restaurant is named after, both chef Pierre Khodja and Albert Camus were born in Algeria and grew up in Marseille. Apart from Camus’ origins, the writer’s musings are also reflection of Khodja’s own life journey up to this point, particularly after Khodja’s near death experience in his Mornington restaurant 15 years ago.
After working for a handful of other restaurants since then, Khodja once again has a place he can call his own. His new 100-seater restaurant, Camus, is much larger than its frontage might suggest. The fit-out oozes casual elegance. Downstairs it’s a dark and moody affair with oak, leather seats, and exposed brick predominating the space, aside from the marble counter set around the white-tiled bar. Upstairs is completely different, and diners will find themselves in a bright, white-washed room. The vibe is relaxed and unpretentious, whether you’re coming in for a meal, or simply for a drink at the bar and snacks to nibble on.
Trained in classical French, Khodja has both international and local experience under his belt, including time spent in Michelin-starred restaurants. Now back in his own restaurant, Khodja has been let loose, and can cook the food he truly desires. Here at Camus, Algerian flavours like cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon and cumin are brought to life with French technique, and lightened up with less heavy-handed use of oils and butter.
The meal gets off to a very good start with the black cumin seed bread rolls, beautifully fluffy and soft, and fresh out of the oven. Grampians olive oil and dukkah come with the warm rolls, but even the bread alone is divine.
Seared Scallops that come atop a bed of braised ox-tail and preserved lemon is one of the excellent starters. The ox-tail possess a touch of sweetness that reminds me of pear. Continuing with the seafood theme, we have the Marinated Ocean Trout with mechouia salad and preserved lemon. Spicy tomato, crunchy orange bits, black salt flakes, tangy sauce, and smooth and supple fish, all come together to create a beautiful amalgamation of flavours and textures.
Mains are designed for sharing. The Slow-cooked Goat with caramelised onion and Iranian apricots is becoming a steady favourite, but we decide to try something different. Braised Beef Tagine comes with a thick sauce, and sweetness is imparted by the numerous dates braised alongside it. Slivered almonds create a nice textural counterpoint.
Duck Bastilla is made with crisp and flaky filo pastry. Nuts and a variety of other ingredients within the generous amount of filling create extra bite. The tangy pomegranate molasses drizzled around the plate adds another dimension of flavour, and the fig-and-raisin chutney brings a sweet balance to the dish.
Khodja’s signature dessert is the Turkish Delight Soufflé. Small pieces of Turkish delight are suspended inside the eggy, airy and fluffy dessert that’s flavoured with rosewater. Smooth and dense halva ice cream, and kaitaifi pistachio baklava, are also forces to be reckoned with. A textural delight indeed. The piping hot, caramelised and crispy Quince Tart, topped with the spiced, star anise ice cream, also impresses.
At Camus, Khodja wants to serve the food he likes to cook for his family. It’s fine-dining level food, but approachable, both in terms of the dishes and the environment they’re served in. His family can count themselves very lucky, and thankfully, we too can now be a part of it.