Carmel: ‘seductive and kind of soulful’
Carmel is the latest venture from the team behind the wildly popular Berber & Q Grill House in Haggerston and Shawarma Bar in Exmouth Market. As the third in a trilogy, it makes total sense. It’s an all-day restaurant (or will be when the breakfast menu launches later this month) and, located in Queen’s Park, has all the benefits of catering to a local, neighbourhood crowd.
Like its predecessors, Carmel draws on the flavours of the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa. But while the focus at Berber & Q Grill House is BBQ culture and the vibe is “quite loud”, says chef-owner Josh Katz, Carmel offers a more “grown-up” environment. Katz calls it a “coming of age” where the team can show off their range. Located in a cobblestone mews off the high street, the place has charm. Pitching up on a chilly night in January, I can’t help loitering outside to take in the twinkly scene – framed by the gridded windows – of people feasting around candlelit tables. The candles turn out to be full-length tapers rather than tea lights, a possible fire hazard that makes me slightly nervous. But I can’t fault the casual, modern design, which combines wooden benches, tiled counters and leather banquettes with whitewashed brickwork and ceiling planters.
The dinner menu brings together a handful of snacks, flatbreads, small and large plates. Naturally you’ll be ordering the turmeric-roasted cauliflower. Katz is famous for his cauliflower. The cauliflower shawarma at Berber & Q is his signature. The one at Carmel is meant to be an “improved” version. The pine nuts have been upgraded to walnuts and rather than drizzling over pomegranate molasses as he does at Berber & Q, Katz has concocted an agrodolce (a sweet and sour sauce) made from molasses, caramelised onions and vinegar. I don’t know if it trumps the original, but it is lip-smackingly good, arriving at the table like a brain, covered in all manner of toppings including fried capers and tahini. Between the crispy singed florets, relish-sweet onions and barely tart pomegranate seeds, it’s a luscious buffet of textures and flavours.
It sets the standard for a gorgeous smoked carrot and beetroot salad, which knits together earthy vegetables with tangy Xigalo cheese and crunchy puffed freekeh. I find it harder to get excited about the gnocchi. The dumplings are squishy as pillows, but the turmeric yoghurt sauce seems a bit flat to me. Quick to the rescue, though, is a spiced lamb flatbread, less flat than bulging and puffy with a resounding ground meat topping. We also get the tarama flatbread, which is like a potato and rosemary focaccia smothered in the saltiest emulsion imaginable. I like my food punchy but this is a grenade.
From the roster of large plates, which includes slow-grilled urfa chilli chicken and pan-seared cod, we plump for the smoked lamb neck shawarma, which comes with sides of garlic labneh, mango amba (fermented mango pickle) and a garlic, coriander, parsley, green chilli sauce, not unlike chimichurri. The meat is so moist and tender it slips off the bone with barely a nudge.
The obvious sweet course after a platter this rich is blood orange sorbet. The kitchen is down to its last scoop, so we bag that plus the rice pudding panna cotta. Made from rice pudding blended into cream, set in a firm panna cotta and served with grilled grapes, spiced chocolate rubble and a moat of grapey juices, the dish is totally bewitching – subtle, mellow, not cloying at all. In fact, seductive and kind of soulful. I’m scraping the bowl clean. For sheer intrigue of flavours, you might even call it the cauliflower of desserts. High praise around here.
Four more flavours of north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. By Tim Auld
Al Fassia, Marrakech
In 1987, Mohammad Chab and his wife Lalla Fatima came up with the radical plan of opening a restaurant only run and cooked in by women. Thirty-five years on, it’s a boutique hotel with another restaurant across town in Aguedal. For aficionados of Moroccan cuisine, it’s regarded as the place to go in the city: the menu drips with koftas, kebabs and tagines – start with pastry stuffed with rice, minced meat, fish, vegetables, spinach and cheese and book-end it all with more sweet, delectable pastry. alfassia.com
A Moorish culinary destination since it opened in Exmouth Market in Farringdon in 1997, Moro is the brainchild of chefs Sam and Sam Clarke, who set off in a campervan around Spain, Morocco and the Sahara to research the restaurant. A bullseye selection of sherries is on the menu to accompany now-classics such as charcoal-grilled lamb with slow-cooked chard, fresh coriander, white beans and garum – puddings include rosewater and cardamom ice-cream. moro.co.uk
Mourad and Aziza, San Francisco
Mourad Lahlou learned to cook traditional Moroccan recipes from his mother and about ingredients from visiting markets with his grandfather. He moved to America aged 17 and went on to open his first San Francisco restaurant Aziza in 2001, where he was awarded his first Michelin star. In 2015 he opened Mourad in the city and was awarded a second Michelin star the same year. He brings a “Cal” edge to north African food, combining traditional recipes with local Californian ingredients. Think Basteeya at Aziza (chicken confit, spiced almond, caramelised onion and sultana raisins) or halibut with squash, vadouvan, sultana, lobster curry and marigold at Mourad. mouradsf.com
With her Maltese mother, Jacqui Challinor, head chef of the Surry Hills destination, has the Mediterranean in her blood. Inspired by the cuisines of Spain, Morocco and the Middle East, this restaurant in a converted warehouse offers BBQ spatchcock with harissa, toum and guindilla; zucchini flowers with truffle honey and pecorino; and for pudding, olive oil ice-cream sandwich, halva, pistachio and honey. nomad.sydney