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What is it?
Sometimes, there’s virtue in not making haste, y'know. When it opened back in 2015, Haggerston’s Berber & Q was hot property (literally, in its charred-edge food, and figuratively in the wave of swooning reviews for which it was met, burned hispi still being a wild novelty in the mid 2010s). A couple of years later, the folks behind it opened the equally well-regarded Shawarma Bar on Exmouth Market, but then that was it: silence. Where more bullish restaurateurs would have hammered on with expansion, nary a peep. Until now, as messrs Josh and Paul Katz and Mattia Bianchi have just snuck out a perfectly-formed neighbourhood restaurant.
It’s on the low-rise backstreet of Lonsdale Road, a hub of converted stables housing holistic yoga studios, co-working spaces, bougie cafés and breweries; a little slice of cosmopolitan Berlin in NW6. Carmel itself is more blushing still: draping greenery, banquet tables, counter seating around the bar and thrumming open kitchen, white tiles and muted pastel banquettes. It’s all very Aesop-skews-tropicalia, and inevitably packed even on a dreary Tuesday evening.
The food is a bit of hodgepodge broadly drawn from the Barbary Coast and the Levant. Flavours are robust and punchy; most everything is liberally flame-licked; and there’s not a single thing on the menu I wouldn’t want to eat. Crucially, every dish is gussied up with at least one eye-poppingly delicious extra element or riff on the familiar.
Take the snacky gildas. Usually, these are skewers of anchovy, olive and pickled pepper, doused in good oil. Here, they sub the salty sprat for a hunk of confit tuna, giving a meatier, more mineral edge to a teeny bite already excellent by pintxos standards. Or the charred, turmeric-roasted cauliflower – a Berber & Q standard – given sweet/sour depth with a pomegranate agrodolce. Or a puffed-up sourdough flatbread, strewn with wild mushrooms, zhoug and fresh amnouri cheese. And a whacking pile of grilled urfa chilli chicken, flecked with pomegranate molasses jus, and curry-pickled radicchio. It’s all terribly satisfying.
The wine list is, obviously, heavy on low-intervention, old-world bottles; the menu skewing quickly skyward in terms of cost, though there are some zippy by-the-glass options (a blended Mâcon-Villages / Chardonnay white from the ever-reliable Du Grappin, and a saline, oxidised orange grillo by Baddaluco were especially neckable). Nifty cocktails, too, particularly the woozy pudding sazerac.
If Carmel was supplanted to Soho or Clerkenwell, it’d be an instant city-centre hit (the ‘vibe’ isn’t a million miles away from, say, Anglo-Italian future classic Manteca in Shoreditch, where it’s still a grind to get a seat months after opening). That it’s firmly in ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ territory in distant Queen’s Park is liable to make one froth, famished, with envy for the denizens of NW6. Lucky them.
What should I order?
The cured sardines with lemon verjus, nobbly ratte potatoes and soured cream are a fine mishmash of sweet, sour and savoury notes, almost disingenuously hidden in the ‘snacks’ part of the menu.
Hunks of grilled hispi cabbage aren’t revolutionary. But the smoky, lightly-incinerated version here – flounced on a smear of labneh and sprinkled with ras el hanout and a macadamia dukkah – make a case for the brassica as king.
For the full open-grill experience, Carmel’s larger sharing plates are a no-brainer. Particularly the smoked lamb neck shawarma: yielding flesh on a pillowy flatbread, garlic labneh and shio koji for thwacking umami, and pickled turnips to cut through the meaty fug.
Why should I go?
For nuanced, flame-licked pan-north-African and Levantine showstoppers as hot at the ticket itself.
23-25 Lonsdale Road, NW6 6RA