Sunday, January 29, 2012

Khamsa: Is London's Best Eatery an Algerian Restaurant in Brixton?

Name Khamsa
Address 140 Acre Lane, Lambeth, London SW2 5UT 
Phone 020 7733 3150
Web site http://www.khamsa.co.uk
Main dish price range £10.90-£13.90
Rating 5 Stars.  The best of its genre-- or perhaps any genre-- in London.    
Recommended dishes 
 Djadj bel Zitoun (Chicken and Olives Tajine) and the Walnut, Pomegranate and Cinnamon Couscous


I am going to do away with the build-up openings and go straight to the point on this one: Khamsa, a cozy, Algenian restaurant in Brixton, may flat out be the best restaurant in the city. We've been sitting on this not-well-known fact for awhile now, simply because I couldn't bear to put up a write-up until I had some proper pictures that could help convey the scope of deliciousness here. Nick and I discovered this restaurant this summer when we headed down to Brixton to see one of our favorite bands, Future Islands, play a show at one of the local music venues-- and between the food and the fantastic music that came later, the evening was simply heavenly.  We live 45 minutes away, but we've trekked back to Brixton to eat here five times since. Every time we walk out a little dazed and awestruck.

Whenever I begin telling someone about the magic that is Khamsa, the moment I say "Algerian," I get a somewhat quizzical look, so let's tackle that first. Algerian cuisine, while not as well known to many outsiders as Moroccan, shares a host of influences and staple dishes with its fellow North African, Berber-influenced cousin.  Meats are cooked in tajines, often stewed for hours over low, charcoal fires designed to preserve their rich flavor. Fluffy couscous is a staple. And many dishes are seasoned with the spices that dominate the region: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and a shock of saffron.


The Special Chicken Tajine at Khamsa during a recent visit.
At Khamsa the result is often stunning. Here, some of the wonder of food is the chef's dedication to super fresh ingredients, often cooked-- just feet from where you're sitting-- with a loving attention to the preparation and presentation.  On a recent evening, Nick and I tucked into a special chicken tajine (£11.5), which was a masterstroke of perfectly combined flavors and warm, goopy goodness. The super-tender stewed chicken was pillowed in a mash of sweet potatoes, cooked spinach, and sultanas (British speak for  golden raisins), and then dusted with fresh almonds and ras al hanout. The last ingredient, for the uninitiated, refers to a combination of North African spices and literally translates into "top of the shop" in Arabic, meaning the best spices a seller has to offer.

Another highlight here is the couscous, perhaps the most fluffy and seasoned incarnation of the dish I've ever encountered. The excellent Walnut, Pomegranate and Cinnamon Couscous (£3) is exactly like it sounds: a sweet, feather-light dish with tiny bits of pomegranate speckled throughout like little hidden treasures. The tajines on regular rotation on Khamsa's one-page menu are also equally delicious and adventurously unique. On past visits, I've adored the Djadj bel Zitoun or Chicken and Olives Tajine (£11), which features braised chicken cooked with green olives, carrots, coriander, garlic and saffron,  topped with a sweet jolt of caramelized onions, cinnamon and orange zest. The Tajine of Spicy White Beans, Lamb Meatballs, & Merguez (£11.50), also hits all the right notes, combining spicy lamb meatballs, white beans, and tomato-doused sausage in a heavily spiced dish.

The sampling of seven salads.
Many of the amazing parts of the Khamsa experience, however, are some of the things that surround the main course.  The bulk of Khamsa's dining space is a small, one room eating area that transports you to a charming slice of North Africa.  Tables are covered entirely in large silver trays; pink and red silks and beaded pillows dot the seats lining the windows; and a large trailing plant-- brought by the owners when their restaurant opened three years ago-- stretches up from a pot in the corner, it's tendrils curling across the ceiling. (A larger area downstairs, dotted with lanterns, seems reserved for larger groups-- and one time when we visited was filled with a festive group of North African locals, a good sign for any place's ethnic credibility.) Nick and I usually begin our meal with the delectable mix of seven salads (£12), an amazingly fresh mix of seasoned, cold vegetables, served in a cheery, sunburst bowl. Fresh, seasoned carrots are a highlight, as well as an aubergine (eggplant) spread, and a cold chickpea dish topped with sausage.

One of Khamsa's divine cakes,
courtesy of www.khamsa.co.uk
And ending a meal at Khamsa is often an experience worthy of a separate five-star rating in and of itself.  The chef prides himself on his intricate, tiny cakes-- many displayed with pride in glass-domed pie trays on the small counter that separates the dining area from the chef's open kitchen. (Watching this dedicated, husband-and-wife team work is yet another Khamsa treat.) Although the cakes vary, his creations in the past have included pistachio flavored tiny macaroon style cakes; dried figs dipped in chocolate and filled with almond; and rolled pastries made with almond paste and rosewater, often adorned with tiny, decorative, icing flourishes. Pair one of those indulgent deserts with Khamsa's giant silver tea kettles of seemingly bottomless, piping hot mint tea, and you'll see why I could spend many evenings at Khamsa. When the food and the atmosphere is this good, it makes you never want to leave. Khamsa on Urbanspoon

2 comments:

DZ-Chick said...

Couldn't agree more, Khamsa is one of Londons best and most hidden gems, with such a fusion of spices and colours it makes me daisy with pleasures!

Thanks for shedding light on my favourite restaurant and our very over-looked Algerian cuisine.

I recommend it all my friends who are often curious about the Algerian culture and right now am drooling ... A trip to Khamsa is in order methinks!

Anonymous said...

Based on your recommendation I went there and enjoyed a great meal.

I noticed the attention to detail the owner has put into the food and the place.

Thanks for letting others in on this restaurant.