Where: Camus, 61 High Street Northcote
What: Familiar flavours in an unfamiliar cuisine
Who: Monemoiselle, The Doc, Rosé Doré and Dreamcatcher
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
High Street, Northcote is a veritable treasure trove of eateries, but I’m ashamed to say I rarely branch out from the salt and pepper tofu at cheap and cheerful Vietnamese joint Lam Lam because Mr WFYB eats almost nothing else. Thankfully I have friends whose palates extend slightly further, which is how we found ourselves at French Algerian restaurant Camus on a balmy Friday night.
Camus is light filled and airy, with a narrow seating area upfront giving way to a more expansive dining room, backed by an open air kitchen where you’re privy to the frenzied handiwork of the chefs. Service was friendly yet inattentive – long periods of time were spent waiting for our wine once we’d ordered a bottle, waiting for our menus, and, in the end, waiting for our bill.
Like every restaurant worth its salt, most of Camus’ wines came by the bottle, and the cheapest wine by the glass was a $13 dessert Riesling. We found Rosé Doré perched gracefully on a bar stool with a pre-dinner glass of rosé in her hand. This inspired us to order a bottle of French rose from the Rhône region for the table. I was three champagnes’ down by that point, by virtue of after-work drinks, so it tasted pretty fine to me but I wasn’t an objective judge.
Camus’ menu changes from time to time, which disappointed me because I’d already planned what we were going to have when I booked us in three weeks ago. The dishes I’d already set my eyes on – seared scallops with Jerusalem artichoke and fried chillies; calamari stuffed with prawns and mushroom borak; Algerian paella; and crushed potatoes with lemon and zaatar – were nowhere to be seen so it was back to the drawing board for me. I soldiered on – although the stuffed calamari and Algerian paella did sound out of this world – because the new menu was just as appealing.
Camus’ menu is divided into ‘to start’, ‘to share’, ‘sides’ and ‘dessert’. We were told to order three from each section if we were hungry, but we ordered all four sides on the menu due to indecision. If you feel like this blog post is endless, it’s because it is – we ordered nearly everything on the menu. Ordering for a group can be difficult but besides Rosé Doré’s oyster allergy and aversion towards sashimi as well as Monemoiselle’s reluctance to have sardines two days in a row, there was nothing else to account for (except perhaps my intolerances, but that would have confined me to the Algerian mint tea).
I did follow my intolerances in one instance – when asked if there was any need for gluten-free bread, I acquiesced because I wanted to save my bloats for later. This turned out to be a wise decision, because I ended the night with four bloats. Who knows – full-gluten bread may have pushed me over the edge.
We dipped our fluffy bread rolls into housemade dukkah and olive oil until our three entrees arrived in quick succession.
The grilled calamari and smoked aubergine on a chickpea pancake was close to my favourite dish of the night. Lightly chargrilled calamari speckled with herbs, oil and spicy chorizo sat atop pureed aubergine and a thin and crispy chickpea pancake that tasted strangely familiar yet unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. When I think about it, it tasted similar to the Indian delicacy paruppu vadai, which is made from chana dal (baby chickpeas that have been split) and that I grew up snacking on before dinnertime. I could have had three of those chickpea pancakes, but decency dictated that I take my little mouthful and shoot covert looks until I was certain everyone had had their share and I could have a second portion.
The stuffed quail with sweet bread, dried fruit and pomegranate dressing was my second favourite entrée. The Doc dispelled any notions I had that sweet bread was dough soaked in honey, and explained that it was the culinary name for the pancreas of an animal i.e. offal. Not that I even noticed this – the quail was tender and well flavoured, and not as sweet as I thought it would have been.
Dreamcatcher, who once moved house on the back of a dream she had, found the burrata with muscatel, crisp sprigs of coriander and quinoa to be the best entrée. While I appreciated its rich and creamy texture, it was my least favourite one, but only because it was competing with the very best.
Mains and sides arrived in quick succession, and trying to fit everything on the table was akin to a jigsaw puzzle – which incidentally The Doc is very good at.
Any dish marked with an ‘MP i.e. market price’ instead of a designated price is always a gamble, but Camus’ fish of the day – a whole baked snapper with chermoula, harissa and fried okra – sounded too good to pass up. The fish was notably spicy due to the use of harissa, which I loved, and the addition of the garlic (eep), cumin and cinnamon in the chermoula brought out the sweetness of the bony snapper. I rarely see okra in dishes prepared in Australia and am so excited when I do, so these corn-flour battered okra were the icing on the cake.
The slow roasted lamb shoulder with za’atar and lemon was cooked to perfection, but didn’t taste nearly as inventive as the other dishes. We each enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything we hadn’t tasted before and we rued not ordering the braised goat with apricot and caramelised onions.
The creamed corn, kale, mushroom and cinnamon kataifi, on the other hand, was again unlike anything I’d tasted before. Kataifi is shredded filo pastry that looks like rice vermicelli and often features in desserts, but in Camus’ iteration, the fine shreds of buttered kataifi had been roasted to a deep brown and blanketed a savoury concoction which tasted similar to spanakopita. I didn’t taste the creamed corn and mushroom as much as I tasted goat’s cheese, which was an odd omission from the dish’s description on the menu. This was an A+ dish.
Each of the sides was good, but one stood out for Monemoiselle and me. I wasn’t able to place the flavours of the potatoes at first – it was like hearing the first few bars of a familiar song during the music round at trivia and desperately searching for its title in the recesses of your brain – and then it struck me: I was eating potatoes with the childhood flavours of Indian lime pickle! The potatoes had been roasted and then tossed with the sour, spicy, salt and heady flavours of lime pickles. I couldn’t get enough of these potatoes and half joked with everyone that I’d rather order another bowl of them than dessert (I wasn’t joking).
The roasted pumpkin with pomegranate and tahini yoghurt dressing was exactly as delicious as it sounded, while the battered cauliflower had more of the savoury notes of the cumin, chilli and ginger that it was fried in than the accompanying raisin dressing that it came with. The Doc compared it to Rumi’s fried cauliflower with sweet onions, currants and pine nuts, but conceded that Rumi’s version was a superior one.
Where the table was unanimous was in its view of the local beetroot with dried ricotta and apple dressing. I’m not a big fan of beetroot (plus they’re heavy on the FODMAP front – it’s easy following my intolerances when it intersects with something I don’t like), but Dreamcatcher wasn’t impressed by the presentation of the dish and said it looked like canned beetroot, even though it clearly wasn’t. She would have preferred for baby beets to be used, or for the beetroot to be diced into smaller chunks. I will defer to her expertise, because I know next to nothing about beetroot.
At this point, we were full but not that full, so much so we were toying with the idea of ordering a cheeseboard. Thankfully the voices of reason intervened – I forget who among us it was – and we decided to go for the Turkish delight soufflé, upon the polite insistence of our waiter that we absolutely had to try it. Alongside that, we ordered that bottle of dessert Riesling that I talked about earlier. I almost went for the Algerian mint tea, but found out it cost $8, and decided I would rather pay $2 more for something alcoholic.
I am not a dessert person, as you may know, but the Turkish delight soufflé was my third favourite dish of the night, which is a big call from someone who doesn’t like dessert. The fluffy and pillowy soufflé gave way to chewy chunks of Turkish delight and was paired with halva ice cream and kataifi-clad pistachio baklava. This is a must-order dish.
By this stage, we’d polished off three bottles of wine and almost half the menu, so it was no surprise that our bill came close to $500. I didn’t feel the effects of all the onion, garlic and pastry that I’d had until the next morning, but it was a firm four-bloat aftermath.
What I loved best about Camus was how nostalgic flavours of my childhood – from the chickpea pancake and the fried okra to the lime pickle – punctuated dishes in fresh and exciting ways that I hadn’t tasted before. I will be back, but I do hope they keep those lime pickle potatoes on the menu.
Camus is open from 12pm to 3pm Friday to Sunday and from 6pm to late Wednesday to Sunday.