The recent World Cup didn’t leave many people in England with a feeling of anticipation, but it did serve the useful purpose of introducing me to Khamsa, the newly opened Algerian restaurant in Brixton. The only Algerian restaurant around, it featured heavily in press coverage of the England/Algeria game and it became tricky to get a table for a while. But since Mister North was down this weekend, we thought we’d try and squeeze in and sample its home cooked delights.
This small, but perfectly formed restaurant just opposite Lidl on Acre Lane were able to fit us in for a 8pm booking on Saturday night and we went along, appetites whetted by a Caesar or two, keen to sample this underrated cuisine and bolstered by excellent reviews. We took a bottle of red as Khamsa is BYO and were pleased to see that we were made most welcome despite being early for our table.
We were seated at a corner table with a large Berber serving plate in the middle and North African style cushions on a bench to sit on. These are quite slippery to sit on and there isn’t a huge amount of leg room, so if you’re in need of a bit of extra breathing room, ask for one of the other tables when you book. This minor quibble aside, we fell on the menu eagerly and tried to decide what to order from the amazing sounding juice menu alone. There is such a delicious selection on offer that we kept the wine for later and chose the pear and basil and the spinach, cucumber and lime to cleanse our palates.
These drinks were freshly made before our eyes while we perused the food options. The starters consist of a large selection of salad dishes and can be ordered as 8 dishes for 2 people for £12. Despite there being three of us, we thought this would still be the best option as it allowed us to sample widely yet keep some room aside for the sensational sounding main courses. We checked that the portions were suitable for three and when assured that they were ordered the starters before deciding on our mains.
This gave us time to try the juices and make sure no one ordered the same main course since G and I had both gone for the same pear and basil juice. This was delicious. The pear was sweet and succulent with the slightly spicy hint of basil stopping it from being cloying. I found Mister North’s cucumber, lime, spinach and mint a bit too wholesome for me, but tasty all the same. Over our juices, he chose a beef stew with chickpeas and pomegranate and walnut couscous while G went for the Couscous Modern or a choice of chicken and lamb kebabs with merguez sausage and vegetable couscous on the side. My choice was a parcel of salmon with courgette and aubergine or hout fi razma.
Important decisions made and an impromptu language lesson later, we just had time to get settled before the starter arrived. Eight teardrop shaped dishes of brightly coloured vegetables, jewel like pulses and creamy dips with a plate of Berber bread on the side filled the table and we got stuck in without ceremony. Everything was excellent, but we felt that that the whole platter suffered slightly from being fridge cold which stifled some of the flavours a bit. But it is testament to the cooking at Khamsa that everything was still excellent.
For me the stand out dishes were the cooked carrot and cumin salad or zroudia amcharmia and the chakchouka modern or slow cooked onions with merguez sausage. The carrots were deliciously sweet without the slightly bitter aftertaste so many of them seem to have these days. They retained just enough bite and the cumin lifted them without overpowering. They worked beautifully with the meltingly soft sweet onion dish with its lingering kick of tomato and chilli. The sausages were fantastic, the coarsely chopped meat spiked with chilli and spices. We could have eaten a whole one each…
The other starters were good. A dish of lentils and green olives was a savoury revelation while black eyed beans soaked in olive oil were sensational. The baba ganoush and hummous were light, creamy and very tasty and went beautifully with the olive rich Berber bread. Only the ajhroum di felfel or roasted pepper salad and a vegetable couscous didn’t hit such high notes. The couscous was a little bit bland and the pepper salad bitter due to it mainly being green peppers. But overall, we were most impressed by the selection and left very little behind despite the portions being more than generous for three people.
We had high hopes for the main courses after that and I was certainly more than pleased with my salmon fillet. Steamed in foil, it was beautifully cooked, flaking with just the edge of a fork. It came on a bed of couscous and harissa and coated with a knockout good paste of aubergines and garlic on top and courgettes around the edge. It was light, tasty and full of flavour and I could see why the waitress had told me it was her favourite. I found it hard not to bolt it down in seconds.
Mister North was also pleased with his beef tagine. Meltingly tender chunks of beef and fat chickpeas came in a rich gravy that coated the beautifully bejewelled looking pomegranate and walnut couscous and left a lovely chilli tinged kick behind. G was less impressed by his main. The meats were generously portioned and very tender, but came served on enough couscous to feed about 3 people and with a rather bland vegetable stew on the side. He described it as the safe option and it definitely needed something like harissa on the side to liven it up. Other than this and the variation in sizes between the main courses, we were impressed.
Despite being perfectly replete, we heeded the advice on the reviews we had read and ordered a plate of pastries to try. The chef at Khamsa originally trained as a pastry chef at some of the finest pastry schools in France and it showed in every single crumb of our taster plate. We shared a vanilla infused number, similar to a doughnut and a syrup drizzled creation like a fig roll, stuffed with dates. We then tried individual pastries with the stand out being a date stuffed with a pistachio marpizan infused with basil and mint. I usually don’t like dates, but I regretted letting Mister North get this one!
We lingered over the pastries with a huge pot of Algerian mint tea and chatted with the staff. Khamsa is run by a husband and wife team who cook everything from scratch including the jams and condiments. Although the restaurant was busy and bustling, they both made time to speak to us to explain their food and ask how we had enjoyed it. They were so friendly and genuine we actually had difficulty getting them to give us change for a tip!
Our bill came to £69 in total for three of us or £23 each. Considering this was for a three course meal with tea and a fresh juice, I think this was excellent value. Mains range from £9.50 or so to £13.50 and although we drank the bottle of wine we brought, I think this meal would have been just as good without booze, making it even better value!
We loved the cosy intimate upstairs restaurant and thought the large downstairs room with scattered floor cushions and acres of space would be perfect for a party since you could get as raucous as you like. Everything was spotlessly clean, the kitchen in open plan and everything is freshly homemade. You’d struggle to get a table on a Friday or Saturday after 8pm, but luckily you can sample Khamsa at breakfast or lunch too as it is open all day. I’ll be nipping in here to try the rosewater scented coffee and a few more pastries as a North African treat next time I brave the utilitarian world of Lidl, but I’d recommend travelling for this one. It’s rare to find a well priced restaurant that combines good ingredients, well cooked food and such a pleasant atmosphere. Claphamites and Brixtonians should treasure the neighbourhood pleasure that is Khamsa…