new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Touch Restaurant: Free Ride in a Military Jeep Included!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Touch Restaurant: Free Ride in a Military Jeep Included!

Touch Restaurant
Siem Riep, Cambodia

Siem Riep is crawling with restaurants, many of them surprisingly good - and popular. (I keep on being amazed when places I want to eat in Cambodia are full).

Our guide, the wonderful Kol Rachan, suggested Touch to us. Which was lucky, since it isn't listed in any of the guides and is pretty much an unknown quantity, located down a small and unassuming street. I couldn't find a website or a listing for it, and I suspect your best bet is asking your hotel or your guide when you get to Siem Riep. Ok, I could probably make a phone call and find out for you, but sometimes I can't be arsed.

We got picked up at our hotel in a very, very old jeep. From the 1960's. "We found it in our backyard, and then, it took a couple of years, but we fixed it up," the driver explained to us. (This summoned up images of scrappy middle-American kids fixing up a found junker with the intention of taking it on a Wacky Roadtrip of Destiny, albeit in Cambodia. Which could actually make a great movie). The driver turned out to be one of the restaurant's owners, the husband of the chef, and very good looking if you're interested in that kind of thing.

The ride was bumpy and dark and very exciting in a seditious way. The driver pointed out landmarks: "There's the hostel. That's the river. And...that's the bad smell." (Living in Asia means you occasionally use smells as geographical markers).

It's a great, intimate little space that you're not exactly expecting when you get out of the jeep. It's quiet, there's mood lighting and interesting original art, and a lot of bamboo. It feels very Khmer.

The menu is all Khmer food, and it's authentic. The family is from Battambang and it's a family operation - the cook, the waitresses, the hostesses, the whole deal. They're all very friendly, all speak great English, and love to banter. (Our driver apologized to us as we headed back: "My sister? She's crazy...ohh," though we'd found her mock-flirting with me and jokes about the food pretty damned amusing).

For a starter, we had the green mango salad. This was made of shaved green (read: unsweet) mango in a sweet chili sauce with the addition of a variety of herbs. I should probably warn you about fishwort. Fishwort is a herb I've only found in Cambodia, which sort of resembles a small, green, gingko leaf. In the opinion of every Westerner I've met, it tastes like some combination of sweetened rotting fish, anise, and ass. Tread carefully with this stuff and, if possible, just make clear that you don't want any of it coming near anything you intend on eating. No offense intended if you're all over fishwort, but, no offense, you're weird. Fishwort aside, it' s a good salad and a very Cambodian kind of thing to eat. I have never suffered gastric issues over Khmer salads, so don't be a wuss.

Although our Cambodian guide, rather ruefully said, "You'll never find a fat cow in Cambodia," when we drove by some beef on the hoof the other day, this isn't really true. This was a very good and very rare steak, coated in Cambodia's distinctive Kampot peppercorns. And it was a big mutah as well. We probably shouldn't have ordered so much food, but then again, we also managed to finish it.

We had a sea bass cooked in a salt crust, another typical Khmer preperation. Lyn's Australian travel doctor told her to avoid fish in Siem Riep since, well, it ain't exactly close to the sea, but she flouted the proscription for this one. Nice tender flesh, and a big old fish to go with it. The salt crust is exactly as described, so no use in eating the skin unless you're into salt-licks, but the meat inside gets tasty.

We also tried the Cambodian style ginger chicken, a very typical dish with a lot of lemongrass, garlic, and yes, ginger. I like the big chunks of spices involved here, though the uninitiated need to realize that lemongrass doesn't chew super well. This is pretty much the Taste of Cambodia for me. (Cambodian food is signifigantly better then you've been led to believe...though you do need to work at finding it more then you do in Thailand).

There is a wine list, including kind of expensive champagne and a decent selection of Chilean selections you've probably never heard of before if you're from the US. Steak does invite wine.

We were driven back in the old jeep and were slightly more lit then we had been before, which was pretty pleasing. I can definitely suggest Touch for an authentic Khmer meal in a slightly secret, secluded location. Complete with a free ride in a military jeep.

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