Cambodia may be a Johnny-come-lately on the Southeast Asia tourist trail, but there’s one area where they’ve already caught up with, even exceeded, their neighbours. The restaurants here (in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh) are fantastic. The Cambodian culinary scene has developed in less than ten years, yet has managed to set high standards so that even the average restaurants should serve up something better than you might get at an equivalently placed restaurant in the West, and that’s really quite an achievement.
Personally, I blame the French. Putting aside the debates concerning colonialism, and to be honest there really is no point in them unless you’re drunk or a cloistered academic — insert relevant joke here — just take a moment and consider what it might be like had Cambodia been a British colony, then come back to me again once the convulsions have passed. I apologise, and promise I won’t ask you to do a terrible thing like that again, but I needed to make a point.
Perhaps as a function of the colonial heritage, there has long been a vibrant French community in Siem Reap that has really dominated the expatriate community, and of course their values have infused the restaurant scene. To my enduring joy, they’ve set the bar deliciously high, and it remains there for everyone else to strive to achieve it.
Francophones (et j’en suis une) are naturally well catered for, but fans of Italian food have also hit on a foodie jackpot in Siem Reap. If you’re on the hunt for a straightforward pizza, laden with rich, juicy, meaty toppings (and non-meaty ones too), then you’re already on to a winner with Central Café and Le Tigre de Papier. In addition to fantastic pizzas, both of these centrally-located places have wide-ranging menus, so if there’s anyone in your group who thinks Italian food is for girls then you’re covered.
For a fuller, authentic Italian experience, you don’t need to book a flight for Milan. The oldest Italian restaurant in town — it turns seven this year — is L’Oasi Italiana, to the north of town on the east riverside (about 10 minutes from Old Market by tuk tuk). This robust tropical garden restaurant is incredibly romantic with a series of little arbours, each housing its own table and seating.
L’Oasi has the most extensive menu and really emphasises the classics. A lot of the great flavour in their food comes about because, unable to find ingredients here that were of sufficiently good quality, the Italian owner and his chef decided to cure and prepare their own bacon, salamis, and sausages. See what we mean by diligence. They now make enough for their own restaurant, and also supply some of the best in town as well, including Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
Closer to the centre of town, talented French chef Patrick Guerry decided to turn his pots and pans to pizzas and pastas two years ago, and proved that Italian gastro-ingenuity isn’t necessarily genetic. At Trattoria Italia on Alley West, you’ll find a gently nostalgic, elegant restaurant with a short menu that offers beautifully thin-based pizzas, classic pastas, gnocchi, carpaccios and other classics.
Keep an eye on the daily specials board as this where Patrick tends to let his creativity fly. If you ever see oxtail being offered, do not hesitate for even one second. You really can’t afford to run the risk that someone else may have ordered the last one, I promise.
Within metres of the mayhem on Pub Street, you’ll find a quiet little alleyway Italian that evokes the Mediterranean so powerfully, notwithstanding the blank wall facing it, that I keep expecting to hear choruses of wolf-whistles. Not aimed at me mind, I’m too old and grumpy for that, but at all the half-naked female back-packers mooching around in bikini tops and fisherman’s pants (I wonder if they realise that half the locals can only conclude that they must be sex workers?).
Il Forno opened last year to the kind of instant glory that restaurateurs dream of. Their recipe for success (if only things were so easy) lies in the simple, stylish decor (whitewashed tables and powder blue chairs), an understated but elegant setting, and food that is simple, approachable and, of course, packed with flavour. They make it look easy, but a great deal of attention to detail has gone into this place and the proof is truly in the pizza, and the pasta and the primi, and everything else too.
They’ve now expanded into the two neighbouring buildings and still they’ll be packed out most nights of the week. Even then, you may find yourself waiting a short while for a table and, if you do, we beg, implore, actually we order you to check out Little Pari, a tiny, lovely, romantic diamond of a jazz wine/cocktail bar on the corner, about 10 metres up from Il Forno while you wait.
Old Market Area
T: (017) 692 997
Le Tigre de Papier
T: (012) 659 770
T: (092) 418 917
T: (092) 410 400
Off The Lane
T: (078) 208 174
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Siem Reap