339 North Fairfax Avenue (just north of Beverly Boulevard)
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Chameau is north – for North African cuisine. But it’s only the food that makes a simple, sophisticated statement in French-Moroccan. No gaudy harem-like decor with slippery silk pillows tossed around a floor covered with thick, plush rugs. No half naked belly dancers shimmying between diners. No high pitched wailing of music that I am too ignorant to even know what to call.
No, see, Chameau is also south – for a decor that feels much more like South Beach, with whispers of Moroccan, and much less like what others may call cool, L.A.-casual. (which I always translate to wannabe-NYC-chic). Geisha House is L.A. Sushi Roku and Katana are very L.A. The decor is flashy. The vibe is loud very much in-your-face with “This is L.A.!” No, Chameau is an understated chic, cool without having to scream it. I don’t know how or why, but it just whispers. Just inside the front door, there’s a tiny bar, glowing electric blue (which is probably why, like Montmartre Lounge, it makes me think of South Beach right off the bat), that’s only wide enough to seat four people. Maybe five if, well, they’re tanorexic waifs from South Beach.
Then around the corner and through a doorway framed with those ornate carved walls, you step into the dining room that now softly glows a dark red. It’s just a tiny rectangular box, but like a B-list actress, makes the most of the assets it’s given. It’s richly colorful, with simple bright stripes on the walls and lampshades (kind of like a technicolor version of Boa Steakhouse’s monochromatic green), and chairs covered in tiny colored mosaic print – like the tiles in a 1960s wading pool. Yet Chameau’s dining room is dark, mysterious, and sexy, with no overhead lighting, backlit murals of sandscapes, and a huge silhouette of a camel against the back wall. The only thing that seems slightly out of place is the strange fringe across the longitude of the ceiling. Everyone else mentions it, so I may as well, too. It’s supposed to be the hairy eyelashes that cover the slit eyes of a camel, but I guess others sort of see it as just a hairy slit – and that is left up to your interepretation.
The interior is subtly gorgeous, but that doesn’t translate to the storefront, for Chameau, you see, is about what matters on the inside. No flashy accessories, no caked on make-up, just the French word for camel, “chameau” simply stated in lowercase letters above the door. Chameau doesn’t belong with the storefronts with no name that’s so trendy, it’s not. So pretentious, it hurts. Like celebrities who don’t need to wear name tags; who don’t introduce themselves. “You should know who I am.” But Chameau is not so presumptuous, not assuming that you should just know who and where they are. There’s a small window box that hints at the Moroccan-ness inside, but it sort of blends in with the neighboring stores; probably why I almost passed Chameau on my slow creep up Fairfax Avenue.
And with north and south, Chameau brings it west. Not only is it here on the west coast, but the restaurant has even moved slightly west from its previous location in Silverlake. There’s no need to give an elaborate history of Chameau – it’s been written up many times by the local press about how it started in Silverlake as a shell for a catering business, then recently moved into its permanent, real restaurant space on Fairfax Avenue, opening to almost all rave reviews of the food.
The menu is seasonal, and in case you couldn’t figure out what season it is in L.A.’s year-round 70 degree climate, it’s very helpfully stated across the top of the menu. I didn’t choose a thing and simply let the pimps do the talking whilst I investigated three small things that come with a plate of bread. It’s not flatbread, but it’s flat – sort of like a focaccia, but spiced on top very differently. There are olives, which I could have hoarded and popped all myself but I didn’t since this was a first-time meeting for many of us – have some manners, girl! There’s also something that looks like baba ghanouj and I’m pretty sure the server did say eggplant, and the third one is made from preserved lemons. Not something I’d order on my own, but tasted since it was there.
We picked three small plates from the starters labelled “summer.” Duck bastilla with sweet almonds, honey, and spices is a sort of napoleon, with richly spiced tendrils of duck sandwiched between paper-thin pastry leaves, and dusted with powdered sugar. I am told that chef Adel Chagan makes this pastry, called warka, by hand. Very impressive, but I don’t think I could quite appreciate the entire thing. I am not a huge fan of duck, and the sweetness in the meat as well as the powdered sugar was a bit too weird of a duck dessert for me.
But I loved the grilled Merguez sausages with chickpea fries and roasted pepper salad. I was a little wary of the merguez sausage, as I have had them only once before, and they were wilted, wrinkled, and dreadfully dry. But Merguez has been redeemed, as these were delicious, with enough spice to mask (for me) the fact the they are made from little baby sheep. Lamb. There was a little disheveled stack of golden bricks – these are ground chickpeas shaped and cooked like french fries. They were just okay, but I ate them in what would be the equivalent of ketchup, I guess, and was blown away by the sauce which I am now realizing was harissa. Spicy. Someone bring me a squeeze bottle of that harissa immediately!
Of course, I don’t go anywhere that serves little fish (sardines, anchovies, smelt) and not order them, so I was lucky that we got the butterflied sardines with charmoula, olives, parsley, and caperberries. It was hard to see in the extremely low light exactly where and how the sardines were on the plate, so I plucked up one of the enromous caperberries first. Like the olives, I could have eaten every single one of them, but I restrained myself. The sardines were slippery smooth, soft and spicy spiced (as opposed to spicy hot). That must have been the charmoula, but if someone ever told me to go sniff out some charmoula, I wouldn’t know what the hell I was looking for.
Even after the bread and three luscious starters, we were still going to order four entrees from the menu that is strangely stuck back in Spring. There’s something for everyone, with a vegetarian cous cous, two fish dishes, two lamb (not for me), beef, and bird. I could have shared an entree with at least two other people, but *eh* When in Morocco, eat like a camel.
Lamb shoulder is served in the earthenware tagine with a huge cone-shaped lid that the server lifts off and takes away witha tiny bit of speactacle. The lamb was tender, and with all the spices in the braising liquid, was okay with me. The tenderness of lamb shoulder is what impressed me. Shoulder! The cous cous was fragrant, and might be the one to turn me back onto cous cous after a very bad version of it at Houston’s many many years ago scarred me.
There was a tiny bit of resistance to ordering the roasted poussin with herb relish, fava beans, and tomato pepper salad – with a faintly foodie declaration that he doesn’t order chicken in restaurants. Au contraire, mon moroccan frere – chicken is actually a great thing to order in a restaurant to really test its capabilities. If a chef can send you into orbit with chicken, imagine what he could do with everything else. It was a teeny bird, roasted whole, and yes, Chef Chagan has mad skills because the poussin was tender and so far from boring bird that I had to wonder – what did he really put in that spice mixture *raises eyebrows* And up until that moment I had very weird feelings about fava beans because, well, because of a certain movie, but I have been converted. The fava beans didn't even taste like any sort of bean - rather tiny bites of soft, smooth vegetable-y butter. Wow.
Culottes are what I wore to elementary school, folded up just above the knee, belted, with a pink Polo shirt tucked in. So I had no idea what a grilled culotte steak would be. It was just a very fat steak, ordered medium-rare, and by golly! It actually came to the table medium-rare. Tender, moist, hot around the edges and just barely warm in the center, it was so perfect, I almost forgot that I decided not to eat beef anymore until the USDA straightens themselves out. There was something served with it, the menu I took home says something about feta and onions and mushrooms and potatoes, but I didn’t taste them. There was no need. Culottes are back! And thank God it’s in steaks because I focking hated wearing culottes.
Like teeny tiny anchovies and sardines, whole, roasted-braised-pan-fried-whatever fish excites me, and the roasted whole lemon sole most certainly did more than that. It was enormous, covered with a creamy white sauce that had a noticeable but not obnoxious lemon tang. It wasn’t pretty on the plate, but as pretty as a whole roasted fish could be, and the flesh inside was a gorgeous, moist, flaky white. It was served with a perfect little pile of baby artichokes. Here’s a little secret – I didn’t know how to eat baby artichokes so I just ate the whole damn thing! I didn’t *gag* and no one pointed and chuckled, so I think I did okay.
The baby artichokes are apparently so good, we ordered an “extra” of them. There are many extras you can order, mostly all vegetables, that feel like the a la carte sides you would order at a traditional steakhouse. When I go back, I may just make a meal of small plates of the extras. And like I said, bring that harissa!
A gateau au chocolat with caramel ice cream and cinnamon chocolate sauce as well as the date-almond snake with caramel sauce and honey mousse rounded out our dinner. I love dates. I love almonds, but for some reason, they didn’t work wonders for me. The honey mousse was light and delicious, but I’m not fond of mousses to begin with. But oh, holy, caramel ice cream. I didn’t even luuurve the gateau (das eez dee francais of French moroccan), which is surprising since it’s chocolate for fox ache, but the caramel ice cream was a standout. And now I know – I can order just the ice cream next time.
Because, you see, I most certainly will be back.