61 High St Northcote, VIC 3070
|Opening hours||Fri-Sun noon-3pm, Wed-Sun 6pm-late|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9486 3063 or 0498 477 353|
The formerly sleepy village at the bottom of Ruckers Hill, known to locals as Westgarth, is gradually waking up. Corner cafe Barry needs a clipboard-wielding staffer to manage weekend crowds, Il Melograno supplies moviegoers with handmade Sicilian-style gelato, Merricote restaurant has become a suburban jewel, and "health food store and wellness clinic" Terra Madre has expanded from one shopfront to three.
Into this hotbed of hip jumps Camus ("ka-MOO"), named after French-Algerian writer-philosopher Albert Camus. It's the work of Camus' fellow countryman Pierre Khodja, whose polished Middle Eastern cooking at Terminus on the Mornington Peninsula earned him a Good Food Guide hat four years running.
Khodja has taken a punt on the former Bar Nancy site, which he stumbled on by chance. He has done much of the interior graft himself, a process that took 15 months. It's a Tardis of a place, narrow and seemingly small from the front, where a long white marble bar and stools greet the street. Beyond lies a dimly lit dining room with bare timber tables and an open kitchen gleaming with black tiles and stainless steel and upstairs, a bright white room seating 38. But wait, there's more. Or there will be in a few weeks, when the rear courtyard is complete, bringing seat numbers to 100.
Open since mid-January, it's casual enough for locals to drop in wearing shorts, sharp enough for a zero birthday. Cheery floor staff are mostly young and a little raw. Dishes might occasionally lob at the wrong table, and wine service can equal, "Can I get you guys a drink?"
But it's a drinks list that warrants attention, a small, hardworking collection that pulls together classic and new-school (textural, tropical Dormilona Skinnie sav blanc from Margaret River may convert orange wine sceptics) from home and away, with only an estate-bottled champagne topping $100.
Khodja's menu is based on the simple, generous Algerian food of his childhood, but it is brought bang up to date with a combination of classical technique (stints at Michelin-starred London restaurants Ma Cuisine and Bistrot Bruno Loubet before landing in Australia in 2001) and a determinedly light touch (less oil and butter, shorter cooking times). Simple? Even apparently straightforward dishes get a cheffy flourish or three.
Take "burrata cheese, pumpkin, zaatar, fried coriander". Yes, all those ingredients make the roll-call, but the gently spiced pumpkin puree forms a plinth beneath the soft, milky cheese bundle, and it's surrounded by crisp coriander sprigs and ruffled lobes of peeled, deseeded tomato.
In another entree, just-seared scallops come with matchsticks of apple providing crunch, flecks of sweet oven-dried chilli for fire, and a silky jerusalem artichoke puree to bring it all together.
Designed for sharing, mains such as whole fish, duck bastilla and slow-cooked goat plot a more traditional course. Khodja buys in three whole goats a week for a dish that's shaping up as a signature. It's cheaper that way, but more importantly, he says, it allows him to train kitchen staff in the all-but-lost culinary art of butchery. He braises hunks of meat to melting tenderness and serves them in a puddle of glossy jus, adding plumped Iranian apricots at the end so they retain bite, providing a sweetly acidic contrast to the fall-apart meat.
As good is a plate-lapping whole snapper, rubbed with a vibrant orange chermoula redolent of harissa, cinnamon, cumin and garlic, and scattered with fried okra. If you've ever eaten and despised the vegetable in its slimy, long-cooked form (call me odd, but I'm a fan), you'll thank the kitchen team for soaking the pods in vinegar and dipping them in cornflour before cooking to tender-crisp.
The only dish that doesn't hit the spot for me is one of the half-dozen sides, an iceberg lettuce and fennel salad dominated by the detergent tang of preserved lemon.
Next time, I'll stick to macaroni cheese, with nubbles of corn and cinnamon caramelised onions beneath the molten cheese surface – was there ever a situation not improved by mac and cheese?
And I'll come again for the Turkish delight souffle, a low-rise dish rather than a tower of egg white, which separates into a soft sponge and a custard studded with rosy nuggets, and accompanied by a quenelle of smooth, dense halva ice-cream and a diamond of kataifi-crackly pistachio baklava.
It's Camus in a nutshell, really: happily drawing on heritage but not strictly bound by it. Welcome to Westgarth.
Pro Tip: Drop in before or after the cinema for a glass of wine and a bite from the bar menu.
Go-to Dish: Slow-cooked goat, caramelised onions, apricot, $36.