The view outside the crab market's restaurants. It's salubrious.
Kep is famous for its "crab market," which is what they tell you all about in the guide books. The guidebooks made me think this would be some kind of elaborate affair, but the reality is that the Crab Market is a strip of 8 or so restaurants right up next to one another, all of them serving the fresh seafood Kep is known for, all of them at rock bottom prices, and insofar as I can determine, they're all pretty good. Within such close proximity of each other, they'd have to be.
I selected Trei because they were not playing bad electronica inside and it seemed a tic or two more upscale then the others judging by napkin-folding skill and the furnishings. It's little things like this that stave off the food poisoning when eating crab in a third world country. And it was this I intended to do. Trei means "fish" in Khmer. You learned something, just now.
The menu, as is expected, focuses on Kep's remarkable array of super fresh seafood. There's everything from whole fish (multiple varieties) to skate to squid to crab to shrimp on the menu. As crab is my favorite food, my choice was an easy one. I picked the crab with sauteed Kampot peppercorns. A medium serving goes for a princely 7 bucks. I also chose the stir-fried morning glory with chili and garlic, which is a traditional Southeast Asian accompaniment to crab, and also happens to be delicious.
The restaurant, like all the restaurants here, is built right out over the water, which means you can hear the water lapping underneath you and watch the fisherpeople (mostly women) bring in their nets or traps. The restaurants all keep their stock in little bamboo traps underneath or beside the restaurants. Trei's cooking team seemed to consist of a fat middle aged women in a small open-kitchen off to the side, with a couple other girls peeling things.
The crab was absolutely fantastic. Ultra-fresh. Bits of bright orange roe hanging off the bottom. They're small crabs, and you have to work a lot to get at them, but they are worth it. The fresh peppercorn is really a pretty delightful thing if you haven't had them before - I am not fond of dried pepper but I have a taste for the fresh stuff, which is less harsh and more invigorating. They're also served with a sprig of green onion. The Crab Market's other restaurants prepare it with a thicker sauce with a lot more spice paste in it, but I personally prefer Trei's more delicate, subtle variant on such. You can taste the crab better.
The serve of morning-glory was also immense and also delicious, with plenty of garlic and chili. It's a standard dish and doesn't vary much, but they certainly gave me enough for 2 bucks.
A note must also be made on Trei's green mango salad. It's another Khmer standby and is often treated rather apathetially. This was a revelation: tons of flavor, tons of peanuts and dried shrimp, a sharp and perfectly sweet chili dressing. Fried shallots and the little sweet ones I love so much here. It's perfect on a hot-ass day, which are most Cambodian days.
The inside of Trei has wooden tables and the napkins are folded all pretty. This is why it's the Upscale choice. The prices, however, are on par with the other crab market establishments.
I came back to Trei twice because I felt loyal and because I could think of no ultra compelling reason not to do so. That night, I came back and had the sampler seafood platter. It's a bit of a splurge for a Cambodian-budgeted type at 11.00, but you get: two prawns, fish fillet, squid, and boiled crab, with accompanying sauces. That kind of platter would be $30 bucks and served with attitude in the USA.
To be able to afford all this and a glass of wine at the age of 22 is something of a realized dream - I cannot tell a lie. It's the freshness that really makes Kep's seafood remarkable. They're swimming around in bamboo traps until you eat them. It's all very simple.