Cuisine Wat Damnak is Cambodia’s sole entry in Asia’s Top 50 Restaurant list, itself a sub-list for the World Top Fifty List. It is to be found in the tourist melting pot of Siem Reap, gateway to Ankor Wat, a short tuk-tuk ride from the bright lights, bad food and dance beats of Pub Street. Housed in this serene colonial building, tasteful and understated, with heavy wood panelling offset with licks of baby blue, is head chef Joannes Rivierre, a Frenchman bringing his classical technique to traditional Khmer cuisine. The ultra-seasonal menu changes fortnightly, with all ingredients sourced from within Cambodia. Six courses come in at an absurdly cheap 28 USD, for which there are two options, plus a vegetarian option.
Many of the ingredients here were new to me, though the chefs skill at balancing flavour was obvious from the start. An amouse bouche had minced pork at the base of the bowl, the meat spiced heavily with garlic and chilli heat. Shavings of coconut and palm sugar are beguiling, scattered, as nearly all dishes were, with fragrant fresh herbs. It was as opening courses should be; a shock to the taste buds, a clear signal in the direction of the meal. From here we take a fillet of chhlang, a river fish not too dissimilar tasting from trout, with marinated jack fruit and tree cucumber. The former has a rich piquancy, the latter the acidity to cut through it.
Scallops come lightly seared with the roe still attached. They are a little fleshy and a million miles away in quality from those caught around the coasts of the UK. Far better is a fried cake that tastes purely of cauliflower sitting central to the plate, and the rich garlic sauce that ties everything together. Another pressed cake may have been my favourite course. Confit duck oozed experience and technique, the soft meat bound with a little rice for texture. On top was more of that acidic tree cucumber, with a puddle of homemade oyster sauce completing it. The oyster sauce in particular was fantastic; rich, deep, and fruity.
There a couple of soups that I forgot to take pictures of. I know we had them because they are on the menu, but that’s about it. Blame the wine. Far more memorable was the pork shank in the rich sauce flavoured heavily with anise. Strips of pork breast were all crisp fat and tender meat, with a softly boiled quails egg for luxury. Only the bamboo shoots spoiled the party. It turns out I don’t like bamboo shoots, which is hardly a surprise given I am not a panda. Still, this was one of those dishes you can’t leave alone, moreish to the point that the government may want to classify it as illegal. We remove the anise from the last of the bowl and pour the rice in, ensuring that no waste is left.
Put bluntly, desserts were not up to same high standards. A stodgy pancake is bad, the caramelised banana and chocolate crème with it less so. It ate alright, but, honestly, it was nothing that couldn’t be done at home for a dinner party. A coconut panna cotta was of a similar ilk – a little overset, served with pineapple salsa and sorbet which failed to set my world alight.
The wine list is great and very fairly priced for a part of the world not known for cheap wine. With this we drink imaginative cocktails, lots of them, given they worked out around £4.00 each. It all makes for a pretty fantastic experience; Khmer food cooked with a precision that you just don’t see in this emerging country. Should you ever find yourself trekking through this part of the world, Cuisine Wat Damnak is a must do.
It should end there, but there is one more place I wanted to mention in Cambodia before I leave this fine country alone. We spent a week on Lazy Beach, a little bit of paradise on Koh Rong Samloem, an island roughly two hours boat ride away from Sihanoukville. It is understated luxury; twenty bungalows over a kilometre of private beach and a main hut serving some of the best Asian food I’ve eaten. It is lazy for a reason – no TV’s, no Wi-Fi, just those views above and a good book to get through the day, whilst nights are spent snorkelling in a sea that shimmers with phosphorescence. I could have easily wrote an entire piece on just how perfect Lazy Beach is, though I am not sure that Chris and the team would want that; they seem to have a lovely existence based almost entirely on word of mouth. Once I got through the gecko’s sleeping in room it quickly became the best place I have ever stayed. If they want word of mouth recommendations, here is mine: The world is a big place and I’m not going to be around long enough to return to anywhere twice if I want to see a lot of it. I draw an exception at Lazy Beach. Whenever I find myself out travelling in the East I will do all I can to include a stay here. It’s simply too perfect not to.
8/10 (For Cuisine Wat Damnak)
For information on Lazy Beach see www.lazybeachcambodia.com