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Restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap

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downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 14, 2010 09:42 AM

Hi there - I will be spending a total of 6 nights in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in February, staying at Raffles in Phnom Penh and Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap. Does any have any recommendations for great restaurants in either city serving Cambodian food? I'm only interested in Cambodian food. Ideally not in a hotel as well, unless the hotel really does serve fantastic food. Thanks in advance!

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    Peter Cherches RE: downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 15, 2010 07:39 AM

    I'm just back from both places as of yesterday. Despite what you may read on other threads, you can indeed get great Khmer food in those towns. I think the other responses may be what I'd call the China syndrome: things are changing so quickly that with increased tourism restaurateurs are filling the gap with refined Khmer cuisine, but people who went a couple of years ago didn't have the same options.

    Phnom Penh:

    Fantastic Khmer food at Romdeng. It's fairly new, run by the same people who've run Friends near the museum for a while. They train street youth for restaurant trades. Romdeng is purely excellent Khmer food in a beautiful building--and if you want, you can try crispy tarantulas there. If you're going to the museum, try Friends too. They serve a mix of western and Asian food, but the young watermelon soup with prawns was fantastic, and the fish in banana leaf with Khmer spice rub was very good.

    One place you won't find in any guide book is a whole cow bbq place. It's at the corner of 19th & 148th Streets in Phnom Penh, evening only, no sign in English, but you'll see the animals being cooked out front. They roast multiple steers outside and you order a plate of mixed cuts for either 15,000 or 21,000 riel ($3.75-$5.25), with various dipping sauces. I loved the place. It's very big, and was really crowded at 8:30PM, a real party atmosphere. Note that on the menu it's called "burnt beef." I was the only westerner in the place, and I found it earlier that day when I saw the whole steers being delivered.

    Siem Reap:

    There are hundreds of restaurants, most in the touristy Pub Street area. Avoid Angkor Palm--really uninspired, bland food. I didn't try Khmer Kitchen, but it may suffer from overexposure--it's listed in every guide. Your best bet is to eat outside of the Pub Street/Old Market Area. However, as someone pointed out on another thread, Blue Pumpkin, a pub/cafe near the Old Market has great ice cream (the four spice was my favorite), and they also have ice cream-only stands by the night market and I'm told at the museum.

    The best Khmer food I had in Siem Reap was at Viroth's, which does make all the guide books. An elegant place near the Wat Bo area. Fabulous food. I had a very delicious green papaya salad with pork and a shrimp & squid yahorn (similar to a Thai curry, but less spicy and more complex in the herb mix).

    Another good Khmer place is Sugar Palm, out at the beginning of the airport road area, on Ta Phul road, south of the Caltex gas station.

    I think Cambodia is one country where you'll do better at places that cater to Westerners, but ones who are looking for fine cuisine takes on Khmer food, than to locals.

    Still, you shouldn't miss some of the French food in Siem Reap, at least for one meal. Samot, in the Passage between Pub Street and the Market serves delicious small plates (the jumbo prawns flambe with kampot peppercorns were fabulous)--I think the owner used to be with Sofitel. Also fabulous is the more formal (but not stuffy) Abacus, off Airport Road. My last night in town I had fantastic leg of lamb in olive sauce with ratatouille and black rice for $12. I wasn't hungry enough for dessert, but the apple tart with kampot peppercorns and soy ice cream looked intriguing. Anyway, don't miss dishes with kampot green peppercorns.

    I also did the set lunch at the Paul Dubrule hospitality training school and was very disappointed.

    My top two picks for Khmer food would be Romdeng in Phnom Penh and Viroth's in Siem Reap. I'd say both are memorable. Don't expect hot spice, but rather a complex interplay of herbal flavors.

    If you drink beer, try Angkor once, but you'll find that Tiger (brewed in Cambodia under license) is much better.

    Lucky you, staying in the Hotel de la Paix and Raffles.

    http://petercherches.blogspot.com

    1 Reply
    1. re: Peter Cherches
      debbieann RE: Peter Cherches Jan 17, 2010 11:24 PM

      thanks for the whole cow place suggestion in PP. We had a great time, wonderful atmosphere. and all the beef and beer you want.

    2. pilinut RE: downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 18, 2010 12:37 AM

      We just returned from a 3-day trip to Siem Reap, and the food exceeded our expectations.

      I'll echo everything good ever said about the Blue Pumpkin--it's better than most places of its type in San Francisco. I had the Four-spice gelato and the Rum raisin--both excellent, as were the cookies.

      The Hotel de la Paix, in addition to being downright gorgeous (it was Sukhothai Hotel deja vu all over again.), its Meric restaurant has an excellent Khmer tasting menu for around $35. It's definitely a splurge by Cambodian standards, but you'd pay more for a lot less in California. We had

      Pounded Wild Eggplant with Grilled Fish
      Green Mango Salad with Wild Snake
      Grilled Beef with Prahok Sauce, served with Khmer organic white rice
      Turnip and Pork Rib Soup
      Stir-fried Prawn with Chayote
      Chicken Saraman
      Assorted Khmer Sweets

      with the a $16 wine pairing, we spent around $60 per person--the most expensive meal, by far, of the trip, but definitely the best one.

      After 3 days there, I can't pretend toI know enough about Khmer food to vouch for the authenticity at Meric, but my gut feel is that it was as it would have been served to upper-class Cambodians: first-rate ingredients, careful preparation, and no pulling punches on the strong, often pungent, flavors. Having grown up with many similarly assertive flavors in the Philippines, I enjoyed almost everything--the dried snake was gamier than expected--but it's not for people who take issue with fish sauce. If I get another chance to return to Siem Reap, I'd make a point of going back for the tasting menu at the Meric.

      2 Replies
      1. re: pilinut
        debbieann RE: pilinut Jan 18, 2010 09:59 PM

        We were just at Blue Pumpkin - the one near the old market and the ice cream was delicious. We tried ginger with black sesame and lemon with kaffir lime and chocolate mint. all delicious. the amok fish ravioli was ok, the stewed pork a little dry.

        1. re: debbieann
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          Peter Cherches RE: debbieann Jan 19, 2010 03:05 AM

          I fear that by nature amok fish or anything made with it is destined to be a disappointment.

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        downtowntorontofoodlover RE: downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 18, 2010 08:03 AM

        Peter and Pilinut - thank you so much for your suggestions! I'm going to print out your responses and take with me on my trip. Peter, I hope you had a great time in Cambodia. By the way, did you hire a guide for Angkor? Any thoughts there?

        2 Replies
        1. re: downtowntorontofoodlover
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          Peter Cherches RE: downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 18, 2010 09:34 AM

          I went on small group tours run by Villa Siem Reap hotel--licensed guides, air-con vans, max 8 guests (we only had 5 and 4 on the 2 temple tours I took). Cheaper than doing it on your own (e.g., $22 for Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom all day tour including lunch), and more comfortable than riding around in a tuk tuk, plus as a solo traveler it's a chance to break the solitude a bit. Don't miss the temples further out like Banteay Srei and the amazing mountain Kbal Spean. Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom are easily doable with a good book and a tuk tuk driver though, but navigating and making sense of Kbal Spean really required a guide. Ta Prohm is worth a visit too. I did that on my own with a tuk tuk and no guide--$8.

          1. re: downtowntorontofoodlover
            pilinut RE: downtowntorontofoodlover Jan 20, 2010 03:31 PM

            We--a group of 4--booked our tour through our travel agent in Manila, and we were very happy with our guide and driver, who, it appears, come from a government-run agency that trains and licenses all the guides in Angkor. I must say that they do an impressive job training these guides. Most seem to speak several languages, and our guide and driver worked very hard to keep us comfortable and happy.

            Our guide, as luck would have it, was also a chef who represented Cambodia at a couple of regional food exhibitions, and his recommendations and comments were very much appreciated by our group. E.g., we had Khmer food at the Foreign Correspondents Club, and his comment on it was that the flavors were correct, but toned-down: Cambodians, he said, generally prefer their food saltier, sweeter, more pungent than the FCC version. I think he would have approved of the Hotel de la Paix tasting meal, had he been there, but he would have almost certainly thought we were paying a ridiculous amount of money for it.
            He also took us to lunch at a place near the Tara Hotel, which had surprisingly good food. Sorry I can't remember the name, but it had a little bookstore/gift shop outside.

            I strongly agree with Peter's suggestion to go to the temples in an airconditioned van rather than a tuktuk. Unless your desire for local color extends to dust and humidity.

            I hope you enjoy your trip as much as we did.

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