Tunisian cafe serves up exotic, elegant dining

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

French, African and Turkish influences are wrapped into one tasty package at a new Commercial Drive eatery

Linda Bates

The Carthage Cafe on Commercial Drive serves up tasty Tunisian fare such as this mussel dish. Photograph by : Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Mohammed Draoui co-owns the restaurant and is also a chef. Photograph by : Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Perhaps because one of my most memorable meals was in Tunisia, I eagerly anticipated a visit to Carthage Cafe, Vancouver’s new Tunisian restaurant on Commercial Drive.

That long-ago meal was in Kairouan, a city with a mosque second in holiness only to those of Mecca and Medina. We’d gone to see the Grand Mosque but neglected to check whether it would be open the day we visited — and it wasn’t. We had a good time anyway, wandering the quiet streets and chatting with kids who politely hit us up for stylos — pens.

Many restaurants were closed, too, but we finally found one where we were the only patrons. The owner heated up the grill, threw on some smelts and vegetables, added olive oil, lemon and some spices — and it was magic.

The Carthage Cafe, open since May, doesn’t have grilled smelts on the menu, but it does do a fine job of producing the delicious French/North African/Mediterranean cuisine unique to Tunisia.

Owners, chefs and brothers Zico and Mohammed Draoui spent many years in Quebec City, where they both cooked in restaurants in upscale hotels like the Hilton and Radisson before the promise of a warmer climate drew them to Vancouver.

Zico (whom I had a hard time reaching, since he was often out shopping for fresh ingredients, a good sign) says the cuisine of Tunisia reflects the many cultures that have passed through the country, each leaving its mark.

In addition to North African dishes like couscous (pasta-like wheat granules) and tagine (a kind of slow-cooked stew made in a special dish) Carthage has, among other dishes, coquilles St. Jacques, bouillabaisse and creme caramel (France), as well as rosewater baklava (Turkey).

Everything I tried here over several visits was delicious. Look for home-made couscous rather than the instant kind, and generous use of saffron and lemon in the tagine and bouillabaisse. The lamb chops with mint sauce, (served with a Tunisian salad of tomatoes, onion and apples with herb dressing and french fries), featured a dark tasty sauce. The couscous Menani includes local halibut in a cumin sauce reduction. Halibut might not be Mediterranean, but it works beautifully in this dish.

Waiting for another visit is the delicious merguez, a spicy North African sausage, served here with salad and fries or in couscous. Also, one of the three mussel dishes will be calling me next time around.

I love restaurants that manage to have have an exotic, elegant feel without upscale prices, so at Carthage I was sold just walking in the door.

The crisp blue tablecloths, beautiful Tunisian hanging lamps and furnishings (provided by another Draoui brother, still in Tunis) and friendly black-clad servers set a tone, which, fortunately, the food was able to match.

In some places, Vancouver’s labour shortage is causing a decline in service. But not at Carthage. Somehow the Draoui brothers have attracted a cadre of young, enthusiastic servers who don’t seem to mind in the slightest when you send them repeatedly back to the kitchen with questions.

Tunisia produces some excellent wines, too, but unfortunately you won’t find a wine list yet at this restaurant. Although they’ve been approved to serve liquor, the civic workers’ strike has held up the issuing of a permit.


1851 Commercial Dr.



Open Monday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Overall: 4

Food: 4

Ambience: 4

Service: 4

Price: $$

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

© The Vancouver Sun 2007


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