Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, springing back from its horrific past to become a wonderful city, rich with culture and tinged with a Western edge from the dollars spent by rapid tourism growth. More bijou than the vast capitals of it’s South-East Asian neighbours, it is a walkable city; the couple of kilometres on the river bank from the night market to the Palace lined with bars and restaurants, ranging from traditional Khmer cuisine to French restaurants that touch on previous empires, to Irish bars. There is always an Irish bar, wherever on the globe you may be. It is possibly the most hospitable place I have ever been. Phnom Penh, that is. Not the Irish bar.
But Cambodia is also a relatively poor country, one that turns over a large proportion of its money from agriculture and is still playing catch-up with much of the world. With this comes a sector of poverty, and with poverty comes exploitation. Children are being taken away from the education to provide income via other means; begging, or worse. The Tree Alliance is a charity organisation which focuses on these at risk children, providing them with skill-set training to progress in life. They have a beauty parlour in Phnom Penh and two restaurants. Much more is happening outside the city and further afield in other countries, each with similar issues. The Tree Alliance are good guys. They do good work.
Of their two restaurants in Phnom Penh we opt for Romdeng, a smart colonial building five minutes walk from the palace. It still feels like it could be someone’s home; a large outdoor terrace weaves around to the swimming pool, which we were sat at the edge of. Inside there is a small charity shop and vast areas dining areas, upstairs and down. Every table is full on a warm Sunday night.
The menu is traditional Khmer and we start with deep fried duck spring rolls, greaseless, but with a ratio of too much pastry to the filling. A dip of tamarind and honey was the star, all sweet and sour and sticky.
Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, a fish curry similar in profile to a Thai yellow curry, only steamed in a banana leaf to a custard consistency. Amok is on every menu and we tried plenty during our trip, with Romdeng the best we found. The chunks of catfish were accurately cooked, the slightly muddy flavour of the fish masked by the vibrant sauce of lemongrass, galangal, and lime.
From the meat section comes crispy strips of pork belly, mercifully light on the advertised five spice, stir fried with onions, red pepper, whole cloves of garlic and green peppercorns. The cooking was faultless; the meat tender, the vegetables still retaining a little bite. A stir fry of beef with less successful, though only down to meat which was on the chewy side.
We choose to take liquid desserts in the form of frozen cocktails and very good they were, too. The bill, with a good amount to drink, fails to hit twenty pound a head despite our best efforts. We ate at Romdeng very earlier on in our trip and it would transpire that better food was to be had elsewhere. This isn’t the point of course, which remains that in those kitchens are youngsters being given a better chance at life. Our server couldn’t have been more helpful, despite his obvious youth – he genuinely deserved the tip we left (all of it shared amongst staff). If you ever find yourself over this part of the world you could do far worse than search out a Tree Alliance restaurant. I personally can vouch for the quality to be found at Romdeng. Like I said, they are good guys. They do good work.