May 18 2013
For a long time one of the joys of Siem Reap was that with so many choices of places to dine, the thought of booking anywhere was almost unimaginable except, perhaps, at some of the classier hotel bistros, and even then that would mostly be for form rather than necessity. It added to the sense of occasion. But with tourist numbers going up, and some really stand-out restaurants making their name, the chances of being turned away from a busy restaurant whose food you’ve been assured you simply have to try is rising too. Hence, forewarned is forearmed.
One of my all-time Siem Reap favourites is Haven, a simple but thoughtful restaurant with a warm welcome, a big heart and tasty, unpretentious, generous food. I would move in here if I could so I can assure you that my devastation on being turned away is intense, and I don’t want you to feel the same way too. As a general rule, lunch times are OK but the warm atmosphere in the evening (a combination of the gently stylish setting, beautiful garden, attentive service and once more that food) makes this a very popular destination. Booking for dinner is very strongly recommended.
The other great thing about Haven, aside from all the above, is that it is a training restaurant for young, disadvantaged Cambodians who are making the transition from institutional care to independence. By dining at Haven, you’re making a positive difference in their lives, and that is really the best sauce of all. Haven is open Monday to Saturday, from 11:00 to 22:00.
I used to live next door to Touich, behind Wat Preah Enkosai in the cool and woody northern side of town, and so cheerfully became accustomed to eating their food from the comfort of my own sofa. Even during low season, on a Tuesday early evening, it could be difficult to secure a table here, thanks to the unique setting, solid food and efficient service for which this restaurant is known. And everyone raves about how their local beef is the best in town.
Touich serves classic Cambodian dishes, sometimes with a bit of a French twist, in a lovely local-style grass-walled building, with soft-lighting, and with a relaxed, easy charm which belies how very on the ball the staff really are. Touich is open all week from 18:00.
The restaurant that is setting every food lover’s heart on fire in Siem Reap is Cuisine Wat Damnak, the creation of Joannes Riviere, a young Frenchman who made his name as head chef at the renowned Hotel de la Paix. Cuisine Wat Damnak, which opened in 2011, is unique in Cambodia, and a pure reflection of Riviere’s passion and commitment to Cambodian food, which is brought into entirely another dimension through his skill and complete understanding of his ingredients.
Cuisine Wat Damnak offers two set menus of five or six courses that will take you on a unique and magical gustatory tour of Cambodia’s flavours. At $19 and $26 for the set menus, you will be hard pressed to find food that tastes this amazing at such accessible prices, and even at far less accessible prices, anywhere in the world. The wine list is also exceptionally well-priced, a sure sign of a restaurant’s respect for its own customers. Cuisine Wat Damnak is open from 18:30, Tuesdays to Sundays. Booking is recommended even during the low season. We also recommend letting them know when you book if you have food allergies, or preferences, for example vegetarians or those who are averse to fish, as fish is such a strong component in the Cambodian diet, which is reflected in the menus here.
For a more traditional take on Cambodian food, the Sugar Palm is a lovely restaurant on the north side of town, set in a magnificent traditional wooden villa. It serves up many of the dishes you’ll find elsewhere, but with a little more style and flavour, and the fish amok is just about the best in town. Sugar Palm’s popularity can mean that booking is worthwhile, though less so during the low season.
A newcomer to the scene is already making headlines, thanks in part to the stellar reputation of its sister restaurants in Phnom Penh, Friends the Restaurant and Romdeng. But Siem Reap’s Marum is proving that little siblings can punch just as high as their elders. Opened in November last year, Marum offers “fusion Cambodian” food in tapas style, in a very stylish, contemporary setting. It is also a training school for young, disadvantaged Cambodians and so your meal will do more than delight your taste buds, it will also help someone to shape their own future. Marum is open from 17:00, Monday to Saturday.
Sok San Street (20m behind X-Bar)
T: (078) 342 404
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Wat Damnak Area
T: (077) 347 762, (063) 965 491
T: (012) 818 143
Between Wat Polanka & the Catholic Church
T: (017) 363 284
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