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Delicious Spree LA to Z...C is for Chameau

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LAist is going on a delicious spree around LA from A to Z. This week, we continue with...C is for camel, and if you're French, that's Chameau.

There's something north about Chameau - 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.

But there's also something very south about Chameau. South Beach, that is. For the decor feels much more like South Beach, with whispers of Moroccan, and much less like what others may call cool, LA-casual. Geisha House is LA. Sushi Roku and Katana are very LA. Their decors are flashy. The vibe is loud and very much in-your-face with "This is LA!" No, Chameau is an understated chic, cool without having to scream it. We 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 LAist 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.

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Around the corner and through a doorway framed with 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 we may as well, too. It's supposed to be the hairy eyelashes that cover the slit eyes of a camel, but 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 we 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 east-er 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.

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, something that looks like baba ghanouj and we're pretty sure the server did say eggplant, and the third one is made from preserved lemons.

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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. We are told that chef Adel Chagan makes this pastry, called warka, by hand. Very impressive, but we couldn't quite appreciate the entire thing, as we are not (yet) huge fans of duck. Besides, the sweetness in the meat as well as the powdered sugar was a bit too weird - a duck dessert.

But LAist loved the grilled Merguez sausages with chickpea fries and roasted pepper salad. The sausages were delicious, with enough spice to mask 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 only okay, but we ate them with what would be the equivalent of ketchup, and was blown away by the sauce - harissa. Spicy. Someone bring us a squeeze bottle of that harissa immediately!

Of course, LAist doesn't go anywhere that serves little fish (sardines, anchovies, smelt) without ordering them, so 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 we plucked up one of the enromous caperberries first. 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 us to go sniff out some charmoula, we wouldn't know what the hell we were 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 the season of Spring. There's something for everyone, with a vegetarian cous cous, two fish dishes, two lamb (not for me), beef, and bird.

Lamb shoulder is served in the earthenware tagine with a huge cone-shaped lid that the server lifts off and takes away with a tiny bit of spectacle. The tenderness of lamb shoulder is what impressed us. It's a shoulder! The cous cous was fragrant, and might be the one to turn some of us back onto cous cous after a very bad version of it at Houston's many many years ago scarred us.

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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 we had to wonder - what did he really put in that spice mixture?!?! And up until that moment we had very weird feelings about fava beans because, well, because of a certain movie, but we 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 LAist wore to elementary school, folded up just above the knee, belted, with a pink Polo shirt tucked in. So we 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, we almost forgot that we decided not to eat beef anymore until the USDA straightens themselves out.

Like teeny tiny anchovies and sardines, whole, roasted-braised-pan-fried-whatever fish excites us, 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.

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 LAist goes back, we may just make a meal of small plates of the extras. And bring on that harissa!

We didn't luuurve the gateau au chocolat with caramel ice cream and cinnamon chocolate sauce (das gateau eez dee francais of French moroccan), which is surprising since it's chocolate for fox ache. The honey mousse was light and delicious, if that counts for anything.

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And same with the date-almond snake with caramel sauce and honey mousse that rounded out our dinner. Dates are delicious. Almonds are awesome. But for some reason, they didn't work wonders for us together. But oh, holy, caramel ice cream! And now we know - we can order just the ice cream next time.

Because, you see, we most certainly will be back.

Chameau
339 North Fairfax Avenue (just north of Beverly Boulevard)
Los Angeles, CA 90036
323.951.0039
www.chameaurestaurant.com