Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cambodge et la Cuisine Francaise

If you're spending more than a few days in Cambodia you probably won't want to be eating Khmer cuisine all the time. While I did discover some restaurants that do fantastic things with the traditional cuisine of Cambodia, there's much less variety than in, say, Vietnam or Thailand. Siem Reap is such a tourist hub for Angkor and surrounding temples that Western restaurants abound, but I wouldn't think of trying any of the Mexican or Italian places. French is another matter, as I'd heard that one could get some truly excellent French food in town. It makes sense. Not only is there the colonial legacy, but there are so many French expats working on restoration and development projects. Khmer cuisine itself doesn't bear the French influence to any real extent, by the way, as Vietnamese does.

Samot is a small restaurant in the crowded, touristy Pub Street area of Siem Reap specializing in French-inspired seafood dishes. Though the menu doesn't state it specifically, it's a small plates restaurant, so 2-3 dishes per person would be in order. I tried two dishes. The jumbo prawns flambe in a whiskey sauce with Kampot peppercorns (fabulously aromatic peppercorns from the Kampot highlands of Cambodia) were brilliant, and I soaked up every last bit of peppercorn-laden sauce with the restaurant's excellent bread. Not nearly as stunning, but still good, were the baked red snapper filets, served over green beans in what I took to be a meuniere sauce. According to the menu the dish was to be served with eggplant caviar, but it appeared that wild mushrooms were a replacement that evening. Samot is a small, comfortable, casual place. It's a gem in a thicket of mediocre, tourist-oriented restaurants. It's in the passage between the Old Market and Pub Street. I refuse to link to the website, as it commits all the crimes endemic to bad restaurant websites.

I had a chance to meet the charming chef/owner Patrick Guerry on my way out. According to his CV, he's been around the block, or at least the world, with stints in St. Bart's, the Maldives, and a Florida-based cruise line before arriving in Cambodia to head the kitchen at the Sofitel Angkor. After that he set out on his own, and opened Samot a couple of years ago. When I told Guerry I wrote about food he suggested I try another French restaurant in town, Abacus.

Abacus is a bit more of a formal restaurant, with a larger menu and full-size main courses. It is now in its second location, which conveniently was right across the road from my hotel. The owner is from the South of France, and that's reflected in the menu, which is done on a blackboard, as it changes weekly. So much of the menu was tempting, but I wasn't ravenous that evening, so I only went for a main course, leg of lamb, which was wonderful, in a very complementary black olive sauce and cooked perfectly medium-rare per my request. One can choose two sides from a generous list. I chose the ratatouille (good but not really special) and black rice. The owner told me that their lamb is sourced from Australia (leg and shank) and New Zealand (chops). The serving was enormous, and I just couldn't handle the prospect of dessert, which is a shame, because the warm apple tart with Kampot peppercorns and soy ice cream seemed so intriguing.

I didn't drink wine with my meals, as I wasn't really in a drinking mood. I'd say for food alone, expect to pay $15-25 per person at either restaurant. Expensive by Cambodia standards but a steal for French food of this quality.


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