As Siem Reap is a tourist destination there are a great many restaurants so we were spoilt for choice. During our short stay we ate breakfast and lunch at our hotel at night but ventured out in the free tuktuk and driver they provided to sample the food in three local restaurants. The first was Sugar Palm.
Sugar Palm is housed in a large traditional two storey wooden building with very high ceilings. It is owned by Bruce and (Cambodian born) Kethana Dunnet who moved to Siem Reap from New Zealand and serves traditional Khmer Food. When we arrived it was very crowded so obviously a popular place to dine. We would have loved to sit outside on the upstairs terrace but all the seats were taken.
It was disappointing that our waiter was somewhat offhand and neither of us felt that our meal was particularly memorable. My main, a vegetarian noodle dish was just a homely lukewarm bowl of fried noodles, not the steaming hot fragrant dish I had hoped for.
When I saw Cambodian's national dish "Amok" (a coconut curry steamed in banana leaves) being served decoratively in coconut shells to diners at the next table I realised that this would have been a much better choice. Especially when I discovered afterwards that Gordon Ramsay had chosen Sugar Palm to sample this Cambodian dish as part of his South East Asian Great Escapes TV series. What a shame I hadn't done my homework beforehand and chosen this.
Our trusty tuktuk driver, Mr Sopheach, drove us to this restaurant. Towards the end of the journey there were so many potholes and bumps in the road that we were thoroughly shaken around. On arrival he apologised profusely. Actually I'd found it rather exhilarating taking a ride on the wild side. Apparently in the monsoon season the conditions are even worse and he would not have attempted it, but the restaurant can send out a 1964 Jeep to collect you.
Touich is a small restaurant run buy a large extended Cambodian Family and serves traditional Khmer cuisine. We had booked in advance to be sure of a table. The setting, with its tropical greenery and soft lighting was romantic.
There were a few mosquitoes hovering around but a mosquito coil was soon put under our table and from then on they kept their distance.
The young wait staff, all family members, was friendly and attentive. And the food was delicious. Especially the whole sand grilled red snapper. It had been stuffed with herbs including lemongrass, encrusted in salt, and then wrapped in a banana leaf before baking in an underground oven.
When serving the waitress split the fish in half so it was easy to pick the flesh away from the bones. It was cooked to perfection, tender and juicy with a hint of lemongrass.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
We had planned to dine at another restaurant but when we arrived at the address we found it was no longer there. Out tuktuk driver suggested that we try our luck at Cuisine Wat Damnak which was close by. Fortunately they had a spare table for us. It turned out to be an excellent choice and a unique experience.
The French chef, Joannes Riviere has lived in Cambodia for 10 years and is very familiar with traditional Khmer cooking which he has given them a modern twist. To go there is a culinary adventure. All their food is fresh and sourced locally. The menu changes week by week in harmony with the seasons.
The chef's wife explained that there were two degustation menus (which mean that you don't choose your own dishes, you eat what is put in from of you. Did we want to do this? We took a look at the menu and it all sounded so exotic and intriguing that we decided to give it a go.
There were two choices: one was US $19 for 5 courses and one US $26 for 6 courses. We settled for the first. (The prices look incredibly low, but this was one of the most expensive meals we had on our trip!).
The amuse bouche was followed by a ripe and green papaya salad with Chhlang fish and wild betel leaf. Next a barbecued pork stew in game style with wild sour leaf, holy basil and water celery and bowls of rice. This was followed by honey roasted free range chicken breast with water mimosa, fire ants and prahok relish.
This last dish would be my biggest challenge. I never eat insects, these fire ants sounded more gruesome than huhu bugs. To my relief they had been mashed into the relish and were invisible.
The dessert was toasted coconut mousse and sorbet with turmeric braised pineapple.
It had been an amazing meal. Yet another example of how you can eat like a king in many parts of Asia for a remarkably small amount of money.