Restaurant Review #100: Chameau, Fairfax

View from our table

Note: Chameau has changed since this review was written. It has been remodeled and is now a delibar open daily from 11am.

Chameau's decor is funky, yet gorgeous. Every aspect of the restaurant's design seems carefully considered. When you first walk in, you're immediately bathed in glowing blue light. You might wonder what happened to the elegant restaurant you thought you were walking into. The tiles on the wall look like industrial bathroom tiles. And everything is, well, blue. What?

Pomegranate champagne, water, and Morroccan sangria with an apple slice

Fortunately, the restaurant itself is more of a warm red, though one wall is multicolored with green undertones. With all this funky decor, how does Chameau avoid being painfully hip? I suppose it's the traditional white linen tablecloths and the friendly, helpful, unpretentious service.

To drink, we skipped the wine list altogether in favor of two of Chameau's signature drinks: pomegranate champagne and Morroccan sangria. The champagne itself didn't have the most amazing flavor, and really didn't taste like pomegranate, but what was so well-conceived about it was that pomegranate seeds pop between your teeth in much the same way (but on a larger scale) that champagne bubbles pop. The only problem is actually getting a pomegranate seed in your mouth along with the champagne. I know this sounds unheard of, but I wonder if serving it in wine glasses would help? For those of you who don't know, I recently learned that champagne glasses have that tall, thin design to help maintain bubbliness, which means that ordinary wine glasses would make your champagne go flat faster. I have a solution: drink up!

The sangria was good, but the tiniest bit watery in spite of a lack of ice, which seems to be a problem with all restaurant sangria in this country. Maybe it was the orange juice? The sangria contained about 15 ingredients, all of which our waiter could recite by heart. What made it Morroccan? The spices, and perhaps the apple slice.

Bread, olives, lemon dipping oil, and invisible eggplant dip

These marinated olives were incredible! They were some of the most richly flavored olives I've ever eaten, and really put the olive bar at Whole Foods to shame. Too bad I didn't know until a day later that they sell their olives, as well as their harissa, dipping oil, and eggplant dip. I guess they were out of eggplant dip, because we didn't get any. It didn't feel like anything was missing, though--the bread and olives were plenty, and so much tastier than the usual blah hunk of French bread that some restaurants serve.

None of the appetizers sounded that exciting to me, and we both have small appetites, so we opted for side dishes instead: I got a baby romaine salad with marinated eggplant and red pepper (which were mysteriously absent, once again, but the salad was very good), and my friend got the fingerling potatoes, which were also quite good, and this is coming from someone who doesn't care for potatoes much. Herbs and butter gave the skins a lot of flavor, and the assorted tiny potatoes were so small that they didn't taste dry and overly starchy.

One side of the dining room

Chameau seats 54, in four large booths along one wall, four tables for four down the center, and about seven smaller tables along the far wall. I'm not a fan of the common LA practice of cramming a bunch of tables together, but on a Wednesday night, it was empty enough that it wasn't affecting anyone. We didn't have reservations, and had no problems getting seated (we arrived around 8:00, and only four other tables were full) but our waiter said that it would be hard to get in without a reservation on a weekend.

Wild (not) rouget with charmoula sauce and leek fondue

They were out of rouget, but since I didn't know what that was anyway, I really didn't care. The menu is a bit indecipherable to those of use not too familiar with classical French cooking and all its associated vocabulary, but the staff wasn't stuck up about explaining things. One woman was so friendly about it, in fact, that I was worried she might fall into our table. Maybe she was bartending that night.

The fish was on the salty side, but based on my extensive fish-eating experience in other Mediterranean regions, I would say that salty fish is true to the cuisine. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to eat the skin or not, but I did, as it had a rich, fishy flavor. I didn't think the leeks did much for the dish, and apparently fondue doesn't mean melted cheese sauce, because there was none of that, but what was really a standout was the charmoula sauce--an intensely garlicky tomato relish that actually used high-quality tomatoes. I can't believe how many restaurants use those mealy pink things that some places try to pass off as tomatoes, often to people who don't know better.

Our other entree was the lamb shank with figs, almonds, and scallions (and orange zest!). Unlike the lamb I've had at Indian restaurants, which is a bit grainy in texture, this lamb was silky smooth and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers or tease away from the bone with your fork. Not being much of a meat eater, I left this dish to my friend, but stole most of the figs, which were fresh and soaked in the same sweet, slightly tangy sauce that the lamb was bathed in. According to the same waitress I mentioned earlier, this is one of their most popular dishes.

The menu consists of mostly beef and lamb dishes, with a couple of chicken and fish dishes, and one vegetarian dish. Six of the entrees stand alone (including the two we ordered) and the other eight or so are somehow heavily involved with couscous. Why? I have never liked couscous. It's dry and flavorless. The lamb came with a small side of couscous, which I will admit is the best couscous I've ever had--it wasn't dry--but it still didn't convert me. Maybe if it had been flavored with something (say, charmoula sauce) I would have enjoyed it more.

I couldn't resist dessert at a place where everything else had been pretty spectacular. The apple almond tart tatin with apple cinnamon ice cream was amaaaaazing, and I don't even like apples! The marzipan-like flavor of the almonds took center stage. The ice cream failed to win me over, though.

Rose petal ice cream

The rose petal ice cream was really the only disappointing thing of the night. It tasted too much like cream, and not enough like sugar or rose, and I don't think it actually contained any rose petals. Guess I'll have to go back to Mexico for some real rose petal ice cream. Also, the berries, while quite good, seemed a very odd accompaniment to the ice cream.

Another side of the dining room

Overall, this was one of the best dining experiences I've had in a long time. Chameau has that extremely rare combination of all five things I'm looking for when I evaluate a restaurant: service, atmosphere, presentation, flavor, and value. Yes, it's a bit on the pricey side--all entrees cost $22-24, so by the time you add a glass of wine, dessert (only $5-6), and possibly another $10 for an appetizer, you can end up forking over about $60. But for an experience that's somewhat upscale, and for reliably good food (I liked some dishes better than others, but everything was good), it really is a lot cheaper than other restaurants that offer a similar experience. I spent about half of my meal eating, and the other half oohing and ahhing. I haven't felt so good since Melisse.

339 N. Fairfax
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Dinner, 6-10pm, Tue-Sat (closed Sun. and Mon.)
Reservations recommended, especially on weekends

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