Monday, May 18, 2009
My main gripe with great restaurants in Vancouver is that they don’t often stay great. It is usually an inevitable cycle. You come across an anonymous little restaurant with great intentions, integrity and food. You fall in love. You rave about it. You eat there more than you do at home and it’s wonderful. The pricing is reasonable, the people down to earth and the food something unique and special. Give it a couple of months. You’ll inadvertently pick up a copy of Vanmag to find that a couple of critics have “discovered” it, and from thereon, everything goes to shit. All of sudden, the nice unassuming bartender is calling himself a mixologist, the owner who would sit and chat with you is now buzzing around calling everyone darling, everyone is preened and stunning and the bar is under-lit. The food becomes merely an afterthought to the plating and pizzazz. You leave, you go home and you cry. God forbid the restaurant ever wins an award.
This is why it is refreshing when a brilliant, dirty little hole in the wall restaurant like Phnom Penh, despite winning fistfuls of restaurant awards and recognition, has managed to stay just that – a dirty little hole in the wall. I like that the décor hasn’t changed and that they haven’t even replaced the faded framed posters of Cambodian temples and rice paddy fields. I like that they have cocktails on their menu as though they were willing to make you a cocktail if you were to order it. I like the slightly curt and exasperated waitress in jeans and a Hello Kitty t-shirt. I like the kind manager who nods with a smile when you sit down, and usually bears bad news that they’re out of all the vegetable dishes you want to order. I don’t like the fact that the last call for food is at 9pm even when the restaurant is packed, but I like that they haven’t changed to accommodate anyone, and that no acclaim has gone to their heads.
If you’ve ever felt like venturing deeper into Vietnamese cuisine, past the bowls of Pho and Vietnamese subs, Phnom Penh is the place to go. Set on a dingy little side street in Chinatown, Phnom Penh’s façade doesn’t offer much. The restaurant looks like just about any other restaurant in Chinatown: cramped tables, lazy susans and twelve paged menus with a complicated numbers system. But once you figure out what on earth it is you’re going to order, and the dishes start to arrive, you realize that Phnom Penh is definitely something special.
Phnom Penh is a Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant. If you’re anything like me and have never really had Cambodian cuisine before, then you may just find that you are addicted and have a new impetus for a South East Asian vacation. Some people may want to go to Cambodia for temple excursions and treks, I just want to go and gorge myself. Seriously, Angkor Wat has nothing on seared butter beef.
Okay so you manage to get a table before the bewitching hour of 9pm, you’ve heard all the great things about the food, but the menu is a labyrinth and the server in the stained white t-shirt and jeans is getting impatient. Here are a couple of recommendations that are definitely a great starting point: (Be warned, you still will be forced to find the items in the menu and order by a combination of pointing and number referencing.)
Butter beef – In my opinion, the heart of a Phnom Penh experience. A plate of razor thin beef just barely seared covered in deep fried garlic, limejuice, cilantro and a smear of butter. It may sound a little strange, it may look a little strange, but after you tear a tender piece from the plate you’ll know what it’s all about.
Grandma’s recipe anything – Calamari, Spare Ribs, and Chicken Wings take your pick. Whichever dish you choose, you’ll find deep fried garlic, chili, and green onion yumminess that is to be dipped in lemon juice and black pepper. Lemon juice, black pepper and a sprinkling of crack. Whatever is in the sauce, it will haunt you in your dreams.
Beef and Anchovy Salad – Don’t tell yourself that you don’t like anchovies, because you don’t know what you’re talking about. You do like them and you will like this salad. Raw beef filet that is exquisitely marinated and tossed with crisp lettuce and onion. I’m not doing this any justice. Think the best Tuna Poke salad you’ve ever had, just with beef and completely differently flavoured. Yeah, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it.
Garlic Basil Clams – Boo Yeah. Enough said.
Ong Choy (aka Kong Hsing Tsai, Morning Glory Stems, or Swamp Cabbage) – My all time favourite Asian vegetable. Crunchy tubular stems steamed and then sautéed with garlic, chili, and salted soybeans. If you’re looking for an alternative vegetable dish that doesn’t have the word swamp in its name, try Dau Miu (aka Dou Miao or Pea Shoots) fried in garlic.
This is really just a surface foray into the delights of Phnom Penh’s menu, but I think it will give you a good starting point.