Inner-north newcomer, Melbourne’s Camus combines Moorish spice and classic French technique with a big dose of heart.
Twentieth Century philosopher, Albert Camus, once penned an existential essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, about a man’s futile exercise of pushing a boulder up a mountain just to see it roll back down. In High Street, Northcote, there’s a big hill (Rucker’s Hill), but no such wearying challenges for the strip’s prospering flock of cafe owners and restaurateurs. The place is positively buzzing – on both sides of the slope.
Like Albert Camus, chef and restaurateur Pierre Khodja was born in Algeria but spent a big chunk of his life in France. He trained in Michelin-starred restaurants before arriving in Australia over a decade ago, where he’s collected accolades running the kitchen for others, but only now had the chance to shine solo.
When he opened Camus in January, Khodja said, “For many years I’ve worked for other people, cooking with one hand tied behind my back. Finally, I get to cook with both hands.” Both hands, and his whole heart.
The menu beautifully balances Khodja’s Algerian heritage and his classical French training. When non-native chefs attempt Arabic or Middle Eastern cuisine they tend to overdo the aromatics, but here, there’s commendable restraint and delicacy of touch.The space itself is contemporary and casually elegant, with plenty of Victorian-era character – high ceilings, big windows – kept intact. Three distinct spaces each have their own look and feel. At the front, a casual bar area has pendant lighting and a long marble bar for drop-ins. Dark and moody, the main dining room
is dominated by the glow of the open kitchen, while a second upstairs dining room, white-washed and minimal, has an entirely different persona.
The menu offers starters, sides and bigger shared dishes. We started with an entrée of just-seared calamari stuffed with aromatic minced prawns and a flaky mushroom-filled borak – a great example of Khodja’s subtle Algerian accent in refined cuisine.
His slow-cooked goat with caramelised onion and apricots is winning hearts all over Northcote, and with good reason. Aromatically spiced, the meat is tender and moist, with just enough fat and connective tissue present to keep things interesting (and delicious). Meanwhile, a delicate duck bastilla with almonds and a quenelle of fruit chutney says all the things that Moorish cuisine says so well; it’s lightly fragrant, texturally exciting and thoroughly intriguing.
Desserts have also had their passports stamped in Algeria, with rose, cardamom and orange blossom all peeking through. Soufflé fans should not pass up the fluffy pink joy of Khodja’s Turkish delight soufflé. Served with pistachio baklava and halva ice-cream, it’s like a delicate cloud of decadent deliciousness.
Locals have embraced Camus because it’s warm, approachable, heartfelt and generous – rare things to come by in this often superficial, trend-driven era. Khodja has plenty of reasons to feel proud.
Details: Camus Restaurant
61 High Street, Northcote, Vic.
Verdict: A great addition to the Melbourne dining scene, Camus elevates North African cuisine with an original and soulful approach.
When a passionate chef gets the freedom to cook from the heart, magic happens.
We rated: The romantic, well-lit ambience; the polished-yet-warm service; and Khodja’s deft mix of heartfelt Algerian authenticity and French culinary skill.
We’d change: Depending on where you sit, the vague sense of being monitored by the (open) kitchen.
All AT reviews are conducted anonymously and our writers pay their own way – so we experience exactly what you would.