Sunday, January 06, 2008

Kampuchea: Yes, But Is It Authentic?

The issue of authenticity often comes up when discussing Asian restaurants. Is a particular restaurant "authentic," and if not is that a mark against it? The question is particularly germane to the recent trend of New York restaurants serving gussied-up Asian street foods. In general, I'm opposed to paying premium prices for versions of dishes I can get for a fraction of the cost in Chinatowns and other Asian-American neighborhoods. I don't need the scene or hype that comes with these places. Still, occasionally a restaurant will come along that manages to get through my prejudices with such panache as to score a goal. Kampuchea (formerly Kampuchea Noodle Bar) is one of those places.

I think it all boils down to a skillful and sensitive executive chef who really knows the real thing, and knows how to up the ante without disrespecting the original. Irene Khin Wong did that with Burmese food at Road to Mandalay some years ago. Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur do it for Indian home cooking at Devi. And Ratha Chau now does it at Kampuchea.

Not that I'm an expert on authenticity in Cambodian food anyway. In New York such expertise would be hard to come by, since I don't think we've had more that a single Cambodian restaurant at any particular time (until recently a good but unspectacular place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn held that honor). I know what Thai food tastes like in Thailand, and Vietnamese food in Vietnam, but I've never been to Cambodia. Still, it's clear from the offerings at Kampuchea (take the savory crepe with shitake mushrooms, soybeans and butternut squash, for instance) that Chau is taking certain liberties. Chau was born in Cambodia, but in New York he previously managed the upscale French restaurant Fleur de Sel and the midtown Italian restaurant Ribot. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I was both skeptical and curious about Kampuchea. The opportunity to try it came when I recently got together for dinner with David Mindich, a friend and a respected media scholar. I asked David, who was visiting from Vermont, if there was anything in particular he was interested in trying. He answered by asking me the same thing. That was when I remembered Kampuchea, which I believe opened in 2006.

Kampuchea's menu is broken into five sections: cold & warm small plates, hot small plates, sandwiches (num pang), savory crepes, and noodles. We shared four items, though I think three would have been sufficient. What struck me most about the food was the obvious care and thought put into the flavor combinations. The tastes and seasonings all married well yet retained their individuality in the mix. Is there a culinary term that's the equivalent of "polyphony"?

The sandwiches are similar to Vietnamese bahn mi. They're served garnished with pickled vegetables, cilantro, and chili mayo. The bread is buttered (perhaps garlic butter) and toasted. We had the Berkshire pork, garlic glazed with honey-dried chili. The bread, which had a slight sweetness, was excellent, and the whole ensemble made for a memorable sandwich.

The catfish crepe, with ground peppercorn, honey soy and sesame seeds was also a delight. As with the Vietnamese banh xeo, the crepes are served with lettuce for wrapping and a sauce for dipping.

The lemongrass smoked duck breast was served rare and sliced, French-style, in a warm broth that reminded me of a lemongrass infused version of a lighter, milder Thai red curry, though according to the menu it's a pumpkin puree (is this authentic?). If the duck was indeed smoked it was only mildly so.

Perhaps the least successful of our dishes was the chilled flat noodles, which I figured might be easier to share than a noodle soup. It had excellent plump prawns and crispy pork belly, but I think the hoisin-based dressing was too sweet and heavy.

The service was friendly and efficient. The food is visually inviting without being prissy or artsy. I was not so thrilled, however, with the long communal tables and backless stools. For me separate tables and comfortable chairs are much more amenable to a leisurely dining experience. This setup does, however, make the most out of a small space.

Prices are high if you're thinking in terms of Asian street food, but I think reasonable taking into account the quality of Chau's ingredients and preparation. Be warned that noodle dishes start at $15. There is a sandwich sampler where one can try three different fillings for $17. I may stop in sooner than later for one of those.

78 Rivington St. (at Allen)

Kampuchea Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review! Peter, do you have an email address?

1:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I just corrected my profile to display my email address. Thanks.

2:56 PM  

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