Albert Camus didn't believe in monogamy, but then, he hadn't tried the goat dish at Camus, a new French-Algerian restaurant named after him in Northcote. Brined for 12 hours then slow cooked, the goat ($36) would have been enough to make the famous philosopher, author, atheist and absurdist see God — or at least a long-term commitment. It's one of the mains on the short but effective menu by Pierre Khodja, a renowned French-Algerian chef bringing new spice and flavour to the Westgarth-end of High Street with his new restaurant.
Camus is on the quieter stretch of the street, and from the pavement it gleams with light, enticing you to step inside the converted terrace house. The attractive space seems very modern Melbourne at first; it sports exposed brick walls, a long bar with white tiles lining the wall behind it, dark moody colours, hanging feature lamps and an all-white dining area-cum-event space upstairs. But then you start to notice the details that speak of somewhere far from Melbourne, like the subtle Algerian-French patterns picked out in unexpected places (under the stairs, for one), the Moorish mirror in the bathroom, and the spice racks and Camus quotes livening up the wall behind the bar.
Speaking of the bar, the wine list is limited but inventive, with unusual varieties making an appearance, such as the 2015 Pittnauer Pitti Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt blend from Austria ($12 glass). The list is constantly changing as the team tries new wines that excite them; on our visit, we try a Shadowfax Pinot Noir ($13 glass) which is new to the menu that night (and is hopefully there to stay). This inventiveness extends to the modern French-Algerian menu, which showcases the same level of care and detail as the design — the complimentary black cumin-spiced bread is so good we could eat it until we died in a haze of carbs, and it's not even officially on the menu.
After you devour the bread, go for some starters. The restaurant's most popular one is the calamari: tiny squid stuffed with prawn meat and topped with a mushroom borek on a drizzle of parsley foam ($28). This heavy and slightly overwhelming dish is balanced by a serve of the burrata, which comes with pumpkin puree and fried coriander ($27). It's deliciously light and sweet.
Both the starters and the mains are large and made for sharing, but save some room for dessert, as the Turkish delight soufflé with halva ice cream and pistachio baklava ($18) is sure to get your heart a-flutter. But even though this dessert is sweet to look at (and to photograph), we'd instead keep the tiny section of our stomach with space left for the quince tart with star anise ice cream ($16).
It's these flavours and attention to detail at Camus that make dining there so memorable — even the wine glasses are monogrammed with symbols that were inspired by Berber tattoos. For a new restaurant, it's an absurdly polished performance and one that deserves longevity, if not monogamy — kind of like the creative work of the man from which it takes its name.