Camus is a new French / Algerian restaurant on the Westgarth strip of High St in Northcote near Merricote, Bar Nonna, Curry Cafe and so on in the building that was Bar Nancy. It has been open about a month. Learning about the food of North Africa is a passion of mine, from cooking from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon to being a repeat visitor to the Moroccan Soup Kitchen in North Fitzroy. I mourned the short-lived B’Stilla Cantina on Brunswick St and keep finding reasons to return to Moroccan Deli-Cacy.
As soon as I heard about Camus I got busy tempting someone to accompany me. It wasn’t difficult. But the timing was. I wanted to go as soon as possible, before the Broadsheet effect occurred and getting in became impossible. But it happened more quickly than I expected.
When I arrived for my booking for two on Saturday night, I entered and stood to the side of the door to leave the entrance clear. I looked for where I was meant to be. There were no front of house staff in the front room, where the bar is. The bar staff were busy at work and were giving no eye contact or clue as to where to go. I moved further into the room to find the front of house station beside the staircase in the middle of the building.
The woman who greeted me was doing a reasonable job of suppressing her panic. The front room was heaving and the rear dining room in front of the open kitchen was almost full. As I walked past so too was the front of Bar Nonna and Merricote also looked full. The Westgarth strip had never looked so lively. She gave me a drinks menu to read and requested I wait a minute. They looked like they were barely coping.
My friend arrived and we stood there for a minute, looking at an empty table set for two right in front of us. Apparently it was not for us. We were then asked to head upstairs, which we did, then loitered again as we had not been directed to a table. One of the wait staff eventually invited us to sit at a table and continued with her work. The upstairs room is stark and white but actually a relief in that it is less noisy than downstairs. We sat and waited.
Eventually another of the wait staff came by and asked if we would like to order drinks. I replied that I wanted to see the food menu first so I can match wine and food. This is the most annoying recent restaurant trend – denying diners the menu when they arrive – and I want it to stop. Give me the menu. Now. Seriously, who orders wine without considering what they’re having with it?
A few minutes later were ready to order: a glass of Vinteloper riesling for me and, for my friend, an orange wine fiend, the Dormilona ‘skinnie’ sauvignon blanc. We ordered from the top down: sardines two ways with chakchouka; calamari stuffed with prawns and mushroom with borak; slow cooked goat with caramelised onions and apricot; and iceberg lettuce, fennel, za’atar and preserved lemon salad.
The sardines are delicious, but this is a very simple dish that would be difficult to get wrong. The calamari stuffed with minced prawn and mushroom are spectacular, as is the sauce, with tarragon and turmeric. The borak is an unnecessary afterthought. Having dispatched my white wine to match the seafood, I ordered a glass of cinsault from Languedoc. I deliberately prefer ordering Australian wine to support the local industry, but the two local reds available by the glass were both shiraz and I am so, so bored with shiraz.
The goat is falling apart tender, a kind of deconstructed tagine with a thinner sauce and a couple of decorative apricots, though there may be more apricot in the sauce. It’s comparable in a way to the deconstructed kebab at Babajan. The salad was a good contrast to the rich meat, with a subtle creaminess to the dressing along with the sharpness of preserved lemon.
We had chosen just the right quantity to leave room for dessert, and ordered the Turkish delight soufflé with pistachio baklava and halva ice cream, and peach tart with anise caramel and blueberry ice cream. We were advised they required a 15-20 minute wait to prepare and that was fine with us. The desserts are spectacular visually and wonderful to eat. The soufflé is very sweet and contains pieces of Turkish delight. The peach tart, a tarte tartin, was my choice and is all about the star anise caramel. We also had coffees, which were very good.
We sat and talked for a bit then asked for the bill. It shocked us when it arrived as for two of the wines we had been billed for the whole bottle rather than a glass, which added about $100 to the bill. We pointed this out and it was reissued. This meal came to about $155, which I think was good value for a high quality meal on a strip that offers real variety now, from a newish Vietnamese called Bamboo and the long-lived Curry Cafe to the sophistication of Merricote.
Once we had ordered the service stabilised and the delivery of food was smooth and timely, so the kitchen is evidently well organised. The wait staff had to walk every plate up the narrow stairs as there appeared to be no dumb waiter. The toilets are in a mezzanine off the staircase, which means accessibility is poor (there may be more toilets downstairs, but I did not see if this was the case).
There are excellent photos of the interior in the Broadsheet profile and a good review from Good Food. I suggest trying to go mid-week rather than on a Friday or Saturday night. However the choice may be made for you because you may not be able to get in when you want to. Camus could improve the service, which should happen as they gain experience and better gauge traffic and timing. In general, this is an impressive addition to the diverse dining options in the inner north.