Feb 29 2012
If you want to get the best eats in Siem Reap, you’ve got to get out of town. It’s true there are some lovely restaurants in the heart of Siem Reap, and some truly excellent ones too (Il Forno, for one example). But if you’re looking for a real treat, then you’d better grab a tuk tuk.
A continuous whirl of rave reviews and “you must, you musts!” has been brewing since the owners of Cuisine Wat Damnak opened their doors just under a year ago. Among their sometimes deliriously appreciative audience, the restaurant counts the highly celebrated chef Raymond Blanc, whose comment “Oh mon dieu, this man can cook. He is blessed!” pretty much sums up his whole review.
Cuisine Wat Damnak takes Cambodian cooking principles and ingredients and gives them a decidedly French twist to create a range of dishes whose extraordinary flavours will echo in your mind long after you have left the table. The menu offers two set course meal options, and the emphasis is on fish and shellfish, a reflection of their core role in the Cambodian diet. Very reasonably priced at $17 for the five-course option, and $24 for the six-course, the magic lies not only in the flavours that owner/chef Joannès Rivière weaves together in his kitchen, but also in how perfectly, completely satisfied one feels at the end of the meal. The balance of flavours, textures and courses is pitch-perfect.
In the area behind Wat Damnak, Cuisine Wat Damnak is an elegant restaurant, but entirely unfussy. Diners can choose whether to sit in the air-con indoor dining room, in the paved and aromatic garden area, or seated on the floor, Khmer style, upstairs in the wooden house. The short but well-chosen wine list is also very reasonably priced.
Vegetarians are extremely well catered for here too. For those with allergies to shellfish, or for whom fish is unpalatable, I recommend that you advise the restaurant a day or two ahead. I for one find fish consumption one of the more inexplicable of human habits and am vividly allergic to shellfish. By calling ahead, it allows Rivière to exercise his imagination and skills in your favour, and the results are always sublime.
Maintaining the French connection, but heading to the other side of town, Abacus is a Siem Reap institution. Originally located near the centre of town, they moved further out just three years ago where the new setting includes a comfortably stylish air-con dining room (with a private room for functions too), a garden dining area, and a lovely, slightly bohemian feeling, al fresco covered bar on the other side of the garden.
In contrast to Cuisine Wat Damnak, the menu at Abacus is French first, with an added Asian twist. Dishes such as the chilled potato soup , scented with coriander and topped with fresh salmon caviar give you an idea of the approach. That may sound a little intimidating to some, but it’s not as fancy pants as it sounds. Abacus takes the stuffiness out of fine dining, and serves up hearty, beautifully prepared food in a relaxed and attractive environment.
Their beef carpaccio alone may have you racing back the next day for more, but other classics such as the pan-fried sea bass on saffron pasta, served with seasonal vegetables with chorizo, clam cream sauce, or grilled lamb chop with rosemary sauce, pretty much guarantee it. If you prefer something simpler, try the rib-eye steak, with a shallot red wine sauce, or the DD burger, made with 200 grams of Australian minced steak (perhaps bested only by Café de la Paix’ gourmet burger, according to some).
Heading north, Cambodian influences prevail at Touich, an understated restaurant whose popularity is virtually unparalleled. I live down the road, and it’s absolutely chock-full almost every single night. Booking is seriously recommended. Touich serves up many Cambodian classics, but they are most proud of their grilled beef which is tender, iron-rich and juicy, and served with a pepper reduction.
The décor is hut. Open-sided walls look onto neighbouring gardens with their scratching chickens and wandering cats, while the low-sided grass roof creates an intimate atmosphere, and keeps out all the elements. Inside, the ceiling opens up and the space is comfortable and relaxed.
The individual ingredients that make up Touich are not necessarily outstanding in their own right, but the combination seems to work in a way that is just so. The setting and the food are distinctly local, but they are done in such a way that you can transition in and out of it seamlessly. The service is always prompt and attentive, and the food is genuinely delicious.
Touich can be tough to find, but they will come and find you if you call them in advance. Booking is strongly recommended for all of these restaurants.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Wat Damnak Village
T : (077) 347 762
Off Route 6
T : 012 644 286
Behind Wat Preah Enkosai
T : 092 808 040
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