Khamsa is determined to bring Algerian and Berber food to the London masses. With food as fresh and tantalisingly spiced as this, both the cuisine and the restaurant deserve to be discovered.
Though North African food is fairly fashionable in London right now and Moroccan restaurants are easy to come by, the same can’t yet be said of the neighbouring cuisine of Algeria. In fact, aside from a few restaurants which helpfully span the North African range, finding an Algerian restaurant takes some serious work. This may be about to change though, as Khamsa is leading the charge to put Algerian cuisine on London’s food map.
The owners have put their heart and soul into their Brixton cafe and restaurant that serves breakfast through to dinner, selling freshly baked cakes and pastries, Algerian coffees and teas and even homemade Algerian-influenced jams. Locals can already enjoy takeaways and there’s plans underway for Algerian music, art and fashion displays showcasing the best the country has to offer.
Despite the area’s recent regeneration, Khamsa’s Brixton setting may still be off-putting for many. Once inside, though, location is irrelevant as South London is swapped for North Africa. Wood-clad from floor to ceiling, the small dining area is as warm and homely as the service and the welcome. Algerian knick-knacks cover the walls – all genuine family memorabilia each with their own story to tell. Downstairs, the restaurant becomes a large lounge - an area of communal conviviality for pre- or post-dinner teas and coffees and the venue for future live Algerian music performances.
For those unfamiliar with Algerian food, Moroccan is the best benchmark, but the cuisine is extremely diverse with influences coming from the Arabs, French, Spanish and particularly the Ottoman Turks and the Berbers. Khamsa’s menu has a particular emphasis on Berber-influenced dishes rich with spices and subtle chilli. As key to the restaurant as the Algerian basis is a focus on healthy recipes and the freshest of ingredients. From breads to spice mixes, cakes to jams, everything is made fresh on-site.
Starters include a selection of Algerian salads, along the lines of meze. A large menu which regularly changes includes zroudia amcharmia, a traditional Algerian salad of cooked carrots with cumin and coriander; chakchouka modern, consisting of pieces of merguez (spicy lamb) sausage in a rich harissa and ras-el-hanout tomato sauce; a sumptuous loubia b’darssa, black-eyed bean salad with olive oil; ajhroum di felfel, a salad of roasted red peppers; and more familiar options such as hummus and baba ganoush. A selection of eight salads for two costs £12 and is generous.
Main courses go down the tagine and couscous route but aren’t likely to be exactly what you’d expect. Hout fi razma (£10.90), a salmon couscous dish, comes served in a tagine. The salmon fillet is just-cooked and juicy and the couscous is studded with roasted vegetables – a perfect example of the fresh, healthy, aromatic approach which Khamsa is taking. The same is true of a tagine djadj (£11), a chicken, spinach and sweet potato tagine which is subtly sweet and bursting with herb and spice flavours, and has its tomato sauce thickened solely with ground almond to give it a rich but not cloying texture.
Desserts in North African restaurants can very often consist of some bought-in, super-sweet baklava and nothing else, but at Khamsa they’re a high point. A host of intricate pastries and cakes are available. Most are traditional but some but some are created with modern interpretations in mind. Their varying Algerian names are too much to keep track of, so it’s a good job they’re handily on display. Dried figs dipped in chocolate and filled with almond, pistachio macaroon-style biscuits, honey and almond rounds, rolled pastries of almond paste and rosewater, the indulgent list goes on. It’s worth coming for these alone, or indeed to pick some up to takeaway. A selection of five costs £4.50.
A special lunchtime offer includes a main dish and coffee for £6.90 – a favourite amongst locals, and weekend brunch options include both sweet and savoury Berber pancakes, such as goat cheese, roasted peppers, tuna or roasted almond and honey. Baked goods like croissants and brioche, all homemade by hand, are also on offer. Dishes are all served on traditional Berber plates, shaped like a bowl with a stand underneath.
Khamsa isn’t licensed to serve alcohol but are happy for customers to bring their own and charge no corkage fee. No pre-made soft drinks are available, either. What they do have, though, is a fascinating line in freshly pressed juices in such inventive combinations as pear and basil or apple and mint, priced between £2.40 and £3. You can also create your own combination.
In terms of hot drinks, there’s also traditional Algerian mint tea (£2 a pot). Served in a proper silver Algerian teapot and bursting with fresh mint taste, this is something of a must. Khamsa’s Algerian coffee (£2) is quickly gaining a local fanbase in the area too – so much so that they now sell it to take away.
The Last Word
Khamsa is one of those restaurants that really does transport you to another place – and this time that place is Algeria. The food is strikingly fresh with expert spicing, and with everything freshly made there’s certainly no cutting corners. A real hidden gem of a restaurant.