While heading over to Carmel in Queen’s Park, north-west London, in the first week of the new year, I’m reminded that January is always an odd time for reviewing. The entire month lends itself to hunkering down and clawing back, with venues closed for weeks on end and others offering the slenderest of hours, sometimes with the radiators off to save on bills. In fact, it often feels like the opposite of hospitality. I’ve sat in many a dead and draughty dining room in January feeling like the only person in Britain who isn’t having a can of Campbell’s soup on the sofa that evening.
So it was a welcome sight to reach Carmel, hiding away on a side road close to the tube station, to find the place so damned welcoming and vibrant. It was a freezing cold Wednesday, but the place was busy with folk keen to try this new North African/East Mediterranean opening from the folk behind east London’s Berber & Q. Any customers eager to try anything in the current climate are a joyous sight, and Carmel exudes a sort of low-watt, twinkly joy, with candlelit tables, low-key music and delightful staff.
When Berber & Q opened in 2015, I was an instant fan, largely because it felt like a Middle Eastern grill house that had mated with an Ottolenghi cookbook and taken root in an Ibizan beach bar. Berber & Q was loud, very delicious, rather dark, completely unbookable and resided in a former minicab office that had had what felt like only a minor refurbishment. You’d eat the likes of smoked short-rib with date glaze or cauliflower shawarma with beets and whipped feta, and it was very much a case of dig in, get messy and throw everything you were wearing in for a boil wash when you got home.
If all of that sounds a bit hectic, you’re in luck, because Carmel is its much more grown-up relative. Or, more accurately, it’s as if someone shook Berber & Q by the lapels, said, “It’s time to have a word with yourself, sonny”, and then gave it a side parting. There’s no loud, pulsating house music at Carmel, although the bathroom does have one of those weird aural soundscapes that made my dining companion Hugh wonder whether it was music or a broken air-conditioner unit; or maybe we’ve just both grown older.
Carmel’s dinner menu is lush, laboured over and decidedly finickety. A bowl of silky, high-class hummus, for example, is made grander with a rich, lamb ragu topping garnished with pistachio and curry leaf, while a top-quality cured sardine appears prettily arranged on a bed of ratte potato, piped soured cream and doused in lemon verjus. Both are delicious and clearly painstakingly road-tested, even if they barely scrape the surface of our appetites.
We share some charred hispi cabbage – one whole quarter, to be exact – expertly crisped and caramelised, served on a bed of labneh and made irresistible with macadamia dukkah. A bowl of gnocchi is spookily cloud-like, and a million miles from the starchy bullets I make at home. Carmel’s gnocchi come in a vibrant, spring sunlight-coloured turmeric yoghurt sauce with spinach and mizithra cheese; the dish is perhaps a little too delicately seasoned, but the tenderness of those gnocchi lives on in my mind. Three fearsomely large prawns, their shells caked in harissa, arrive in a pan of ’nduja butter with courgette tzatziki, and are beautifully flavoured, albeit a terrific, messy job to deal with.
With almost everything at Carmel, the real flavours are in the smears, yoghurts and dressings, with not a whole lot of carbs on hand to bulk out the dishes. Thankfully, though, there are warm, fresh sourdough flatbreads with toppings such as spiced lamb with aleppo chilli or, in our case, tarama with soft sliced potato and rosemary to provide a little heft for hungry diners. Large plates for sharing begin at £25 for the slow-grilled urfa chicken, which turns up on a perilously sweet-bitter pomegranate molasses-soaked piece of sourdough, with some curry-pickled radicchio on the side. The two of us demolish it easily. Other sharing plates include smoked lamb neck shawarma with a shio koji marinade and seared cod with palourde clams. A pudding of dark chocolate tart with tahini cream has a brittle, teeth-shatteringly sweet biscuit bottom, but it’s ridiculously lovely.
In being all elegant and adult, Carmel may have lost something of the largesse of its east-London relative, but in cooking ingenuity, it leaves Berber & Q way behind. Carmel is dainty, delightful, good for both a date night and a cold midweek in early 2022, and it’s absolutely heaving. A most promising start to the eating-out year.