OAs I head to Carmel in Queen’s Park, North West London, the first week of the New Year, I am reminded that January is always a strange time to revise. The whole month lends itself to retreating and recuperating, with rooms closed for weeks and others offering the thinnest hours, sometimes with the radiators turned off to save on bills. In fact, it often feels like the opposite of hospitality. I sat in many dead, drafty dining rooms in January feeling like the only person in Britain who didn’t have a can of Campbell’s soup on the sofa that night.
So it was a welcome sight to reach Carmel, tucked away on a side road near the metro station, to find the place so damn welcoming and vibrant. It was a freezing Wednesday, but the place was busy with people keen to try this new North African/Eastern Mediterranean opening from the folks behind East London’s Berber & Q. Any patrons eager to try anything in the current climate are a joyous sight, and Carmel exudes a sort of low-watt, twinkling joy, with candlelit tables, low-key music, and charming staff.
When Berber & Q opened in 2015 I was an instant fan, largely because it looked like a Middle Eastern grill that had mated with an Ottolenghi cookbook and taken root in a bar. from Ibiza beach. Berber & Q was loud, very delicious, rather dark, completely unbookable, and resided in a former minicab office that had had what looked like a minor refurbishment. You ate smoked ribs with date glaze or cauliflower shawarma with beets and whipped feta, and it was really a case of digging, getting dirty, and throwing everything you were wearing for a wash. to a boil when you had home.
If this all sounds a little hectic, you’re in luck, because Carmel is his much more adult relative. Or, more accurately, it’s like someone shaking Berber & Q by the lapels, saying, “Time to say a word to you, son,” then giving him a side parting. There’s no loud, pulsating house music at Carmel, although the bathroom has one of those weird soundscapes that made my table mate Hugh wonder if it was music or a broken air conditioner; or maybe we both just got older.
Carmel’s dinner menu is lush, laborious and decidedly temperamental. A bowl of silky, high-class hummus, for example, is made grander with a rich topping of lamb stew topped with pistachio and curry leaf, while a premium dried sardine appears beautifully arranged on a bed. of fingerling potatoes, pricked sour cream and sprinkled with lemon verjuice. Both are delicious and have clearly been thoroughly tested on the road, even if they barely scratch the surface of our appetites.
We share charred hispi cabbage – a whole quarter, to be exact – expertly crispy and caramelized, served on a bed of labneh and made irresistible with macadamia dukkah. A bowl of gnocchi looks like a spooky cloud, and a million miles from the starchy balls I make at home. Carmel’s gnocchi are served in a turmeric yogurt sauce in spring and spring colors with spinach and mizithra cheese; the dish is perhaps a little too delicately seasoned, but the tenderness of these gnocchi sticks in my mind. Three awfully big prawns, their shells covered in harissa, arrive in a pot of ‘nduja butter with zucchini tzatziki and are beautifully flavored, though a great and messy job to manage.
With almost everything at Carmel, the real flavors are in the smears, yogurts and dressings, with few carbs on hand to flesh out the dishes. Luckily, however, there are warm and fresh sourdough flatbreads with toppings such as spiced lamb with Aleppo pepper or, in our case, tarama with soft potato slices and rosemary for give a little weight to hungry diners. Large plates to share start at £25 for the slow-grilled urfa chicken, which comes on a sourdough piece soaked in dangerously bittersweet pomegranate molasses, with curried-marinated radicchio on the side. We both easily destroy it. Other plates to share include smoked lamb neck shawarma with shio koji marinade and seared cod with clams. A dark chocolate pie pudding with tahini cream has a brittle and sweet cookie bottom, but it’s ridiculously beautiful.
In being all sleek and grown-up, Carmel may have lost something of its East London parent’s largesse, but in culinary ingenuity it leaves Berber & Q far behind. Carmel is delicate, delicious, good for both a date night and a chilly midweek in early 2022, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. A most promising start to the year at the restaurant.