new Things I Ate in Cambodia: December 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Indian Delight: Best Damn Tikka Masala in Cambodia (and other stuff)

Indian Delight
115e0, Sisowath Quay
023 724 885
Phnom Penh

I'm an Indian food snob. I lived in Bangalore for six months back in 2008 and went back in 2010: I'm no fan of the uber-heavy, cream-rich Muhgali food that's favored outside the Subcontinent. However, I was very happy to discover India Delight on Sisowath Quay, which turns out Indian food much closer to the non-coronary-inducing masalas and curries I remember from India. They even pay attention when you ask for your food spicy. Furthermore, there isn't a heady layer of grease hanging over everything you order.

I find chicken tikka masala way too rich the way most places make it, but Indian Delight's version is just about akin to crack for me. You know what this stuff is (hint: it was invented in Britain) but I'll describe it again: pieces of roasted tandoori chicken cooked in a very spicy, slightly creamy sauce with a profusion of fresh spices. This is definitely the tastiest tikka masala I've had - hell, ever, I think - and it's only $5.00. I sometimes wish I could just eat this for lunch every day. It's especially good with the yellow rice peas pulao they serve here, which has a bit of saffron in it.

There's also a rich version of vindaloo, the Portugese-inspired Goa dish of curried chicken with plenty of vinegar and meat, as well as potatoes. My boyfriend is rather fond of the stuff and orders it regularly. I haven't ordered it myself - the tikka masala has its siren song - but it's decent stuff.

There's also excellent aloo gobi, which an be ordered dry or "wet," same question they ask you in India, which I always appreciate. i rather prefer the "dry" stir-fried stuff most of the time. This was again excellent, with a lot of interesting flavors and not-too-limp cauliflower.

It's tragic that most Westerners find okra "icky." Being of Louisiana and Southern extraction, I love okra and grew up on the stuff, and I really love okra curry. Incorporating the same excellent masala that is a hall-mark of India Delight, this is one of the best versions I've encountered. Reminded me of a particularly fabulous restaurant I used to frequent in Bangalore.

Mixed vegetable masala - a little buttery, quite good. The "subzi" often take a back-seat to meat curries in the minds of most but to me are rather integral.

Indian Delight also does lovely "mixed" lime sodas - salty and sweet - and owns a lovely espresso machine. It's by far my favorite Indian restaurant in Phnom Penh, and is one of the best I've frequented outside of India. The friendly service and the pleasantly quiet (other than the occasional Hindi ballad) dining room make for additional pluses, as do the reasonable prices. Set "thali" meals are around $4, while Happy Hour seems to last just about all day, with draft beer included.

I'd put Indian Delight at the top of your list if you're hankering for Indian food in Cambodia.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rahu: I Forgot I Kinda Liked Hipster Sushi

Sisowath Quay
10 Sisowath Quay
Tel: 023 215 179

Hipster sushi makes up roughly 80% of the diets of Northern Californians, and I'm pleased to announce that Phnom Penh now has an entry into the field. Restaurant chain Metro has opened a sushi outpost next to Harem Shisha Bar and the Riverhouse Lounge, with sushi and Japanese specialities added on to the standard Metro menu.

The dark, moody, and aggressively hip decor - yes, I'll mention the Angry Monk Kid painting in the back corner, let's stop talking about it now - is set off by extremely attractive and somewhat attentive wait-staff. Where Rahu really shines is after 11:00 PM, when the sushi menu is discounted by 50%. In fact, I've never actually eaten at Rahu before the discount hit.

In a city where late-night food can be limited—if you're not brave enough to risk food stalls and gastrointestinal ruin—this late night sushi can be something of a blessing, especially if you're not really that into greasy hangover prevention chow. Rolls top out at around $5 and most are in the $3.50 area. It's a pretty good deal for the tastiest sushi I've had in town. The menu is not particularly extensive, but all the bases are covered, with sushi rolls, sashimi, and some other Japanese classics on offer.

The spicy salmon rolls are my favorite here. The legitimately spicy salmon interior is wrapped in rice which is studded with small, crispy tempura bits. It's finished with a not-excessive drizzle of wasabi mayo and is really a pretty perfect light meal or late-night snack. I used to bitch about California sushi's obsession with sauces, but now I miss them. A lot.

The simple tuna roll is executed beautifully here - fresh tuna, perfectly rolled, seaweed that isn't too chewy. No sauces to accompany here, which is as it should be for one of Japanese cuisine's more perfectly simple creations.

Salmon, asparagus, and cream cheese is another classic California-style roll that is just about impossible to find in Cambodia. I really like this roll - creamy cheese, some subtlety unctuous salmon, a bit of green onion, some crisp asparagus, and a smidgen of spicy sauce. Rich without making you feel sort of awful about yourself. Which is not the point of sushi.

There's also beef with red ants rolls on the menu. These are especially fun if you can order these when your friend is in the bathroom, than pass it off as something totally benign. That joke never gets old.

Don't forget to ask the waitstaff to bring you some of Rahu's home-made potato chips to go with your sushi and alcoholic beverages. They're seasoned with something delicious and are, in my opinion, far superior to the sweet n' salty peanuts usually on offer with beer in Cambodia.

Be aware that a service charge is tacked onto the bill whether you like it or not - keep this in mind before embarking on some sort of PM sushi binge. It's true that Rahu would be somewhat obnoxiously chic if it wasn't here, but as things currently stand in PP, it's kinda nice to be able to get California-style sushi late at night at an aggressively hip restaurant where the waitstaff aren't particularly nice to you. It reminds me of home.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Happa: Excellent Japanese Teppanyaki in Phnom Penh

#17, Street 278
Phnom Penh
Tel: 077749266

I realized recently that the restaurants I eat at the most here in Phnom Penh are rarely the ones I review. Something about incredible familiarity makes me less likely to go ahead and haul the camera with me and do the review - so I'm glad I finally got around to Happa, a great little Japanese/Khmer teppanyaki joint on backpacker-beloved street 278.

Happa's pork stir-fried with sesame.

The menu focuses on Japanese small plates, prepared in front of you on the restaurant's big iron griddle, which makes for some rather interesting visuals and assurance that you're getting pretty fresh food. There's sauteed small plates of meats and vegetables, main-course dishes with steak, pork, and lamb, salads and fried specialities, and even Japanese pizza or "okonamayaki," a cabbage and flour pancake topped with bacon and cheese.

The teriyaki chicken here is excellent, nice and tender and not too salty, with some dark meat bits thrown in, which I infinitely prefer. I like to eat this with the oyster mushrooms sauteed in butter.

I'm also a big fan of the fresh tofu salad, which has soft tofu, seaweed, sesame and lettuce tossed in a vinegary-heavy dressing. A nice light stomach-friendly meal. My only complaint with Happa is that the cooks sometimes take too heavy a hand with the salt-shaker, but the issue seems to have been weeded out in the last month or two.

Vegetarians will enjoy Happa's turn with tofu - seems like there's fifteen different tofu based dishes on the menu, all using soft local tofu. The tofu steak with basil and chili is a Khmer-accented take and is pretty excellent - not TOO soft - served with Happa's griddle-fried potatoes (my boyfriend is an addict) and some sauteed vegetables. As far as main courses go, the pork cutlet topped with cheese and mushrooms, served with potatoes and veggies, is also excellent at $6.00.

Grilled Japanese eggplant is on special here sometimes. I can't say I find it too different from Khmer style grilled eggplant, other than perhaps the slightly sweet, slightly vinegary sauce on top, but it's still a good and distinctly smoky dish.

There's also a couple pages of classic Khmer dishes near the back if you're interesting in mixing your East Asian with your Southeast Asian. If you get there in time, Happa often has sushi rolls and sashimi featuring the fish of the day—comfortingly for those inclined to distrust raw fish in a third-world nation, they often run out.

The friendly wood-accented dining area is a casual spot to drink a beer or a glass of wine while waiting for your food - no one is attempting to hustle you out of the restaurant here, and its quiet location makes it possible to have a decent conversation here while enjoying some cooler dry season weather.

Happa's owners also play fantastic music, which is a real asset in a land where restaurant music trends more towards the ear-gratingly horrible. I hear New Orleans tracks I don't encounter outside of the Crescent city at Happa, as well as excellent Delta blues, jazz, and soul music. Someone with excellent taste in American music is obviously in charge of the audio here.

My dad notes many of his Japanese coworkers are rabid blues and jazz fans - Japanese readers, can you back this up?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Suzume: Homey Japanese Food in Dark Heart of Phnom Penh

14A Street 51
092 748 393
Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh has more Japanese restaurants than I ever expected it to have, mostly due to the city's healthy (and apparently chronically starving) population of Japanese NGO workers. Most Japanese restaurants here are of the rustic variety, specializing more in curries, soups, ramen and gyoza, rather than more complicated and delicate affairs like sushi.

Expat-beloved and low-key Suzume, however, has a phone-book size menu with most standard Japanese dishes, including ramen and gyoza, a variety of tempura, and even a selection of sushi rolls.

Downside: everything is more expensive than it is at other "mid-range" Japanese places in town, including ramen at $7, which I think is a bit ridiculous in Cambodia. Bowl o' noodles, like everyone else eats here, just from Japan.

Edamame:possibly the perfect snack, tragically a bit hard to find here, or at least in the awesome pre-packaged microwave pack format you can find the stuff in Northern California. Buttery nutrient rich deliciousness, all natural, hard to object in any way.

Suzume does a pretty good turn in shrimp and vegetable tempura, which can be fried into a chewy, immense mass of suck and here is light and airy in the best Japanese fashion. Fried seaweed in batter is curiously delectable. I do not know how they turn shrimp into shrimp *poles* like this but it is rather impressive. Probably involves deveining, maybe crustacean torture, I don't know.

Vegetable gyoza are another classic - need to be light and not chewy, in the Japanese fashion (more leeway is allowed for big meaty greasy Chinese dumplings). These were filled with cabbage and chives and were quite tasty. I like the meaty variety more but one makes concessions when dining with vegetarians. (Hey, I love you guys. Cook for ya all the time. Well, used to.)

My boyfriend is sort of a Japanese curry obsessive and this is probably the most comforting of Japanese comfort foods to the expat set: mild curry, rice, and fried pork katsu on top. Great for cold weather (if we had any) and excellent if you're: 6'6, working on a construction site, or have recently suffered from a bout of weight-loss causing sickness. Since most foreigners here often experience #3, fire away. Japanese people: is this also Comfort Food of Choice? Suspect so for many.

Tuna rolls are a simple but delicious affair, and these use nice fish and are well-rolled, which is often an issue with sushi in Cambodia.

Admittedly: I spend my days at the Khmer Rouge War Tribunal of late and sometimes day-dream about asking the anti-materalist anti-Western Communist leaders of yore - "Hey, did you know bunches of expats dine on Japanese imperialist food at rather high prices in your very own capital? Suck on it!"

I will never get a chance to do this but it's kind of a dream.

My personal favorite: eel and cucumber rolls. These were quite good, and had a nice fresh, sweet, nicely unctuous flavor. Simple sushi rolls are something I miss very much from the US. Had I known I would miss Tulane University cafeteria sushi so much. In any case, these rolls fill the void in my heart, and there's no "service charge" like that surprise tacked on at Rahu. Tasty as Rahu's sushi may be.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mekong Korean: Cold Weather Food for the Tropics

Mekong Korean Restaurant
Sothearos Drive
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Korean restaurants are rife in Phnom Penh, and family restaurant Mekong Korean occupies a convenient location in the very center of the city. Dishing up rustic versions of Korean standards such as bi-bim-bap, tofu stew, stir-fried pork with red pepper and chicken stews, the restaurant has an entirely nondescript interior, few Western customers, and background music trending towards "Christian Celtic Songs Of the 90's." I find it all rather relaxing.

My favorite dish here is definitely the bulgogi stew at $8. It's not really bulgogi - they use ground beef here - but I love the slightly sweet, beefy, sesame infused broth. It's served with cabbage, carrots, sesame seeds, onions, and a bunch of enoki mushrooms. All the vegetation can make you pretend you're being healthy. Also a great option when dining with people who are red pepper averse, which is a serious, serious malfunction in Korean restaurants.

Another good dish here is Korean chicken stew, an exceptionally homey dish of braised chicken in a spicy red pepper sauce with potatoes, capsicum, onions, and chilis. It's spicy and delightfuly rustic at the same time. Great over rice, big pieces of skin-on, bone in chicken, something you'd make yourself in cool weather. It's almost getting into the low seventies at night in Phnom Penh now so I feel cold-weather food is entirely justified. It's around $14 for 2, and the stew's serving size was big enough that Giant Iowa Boyfriend and I could share it and be more than satiated.

The reason Korean restaurants may seem somewhat pricier than other restaurants is undoubtedly due to panchan, the ubiquitous selection of side-dishes trotted out at any Korean restaurant worth a damn. As these side-dishes are always refilled upon request (or without request), you could consider a good Korean restaurant something more of an all-you-can-eat buffet—and entree portion sizes tend to be healthy as well.

Mekong Korean does excellent marinated eggplant, fishcakes, beansprouts and daikon, but you'll get something different every time. I find their classic cabbage kimchi only OK, however. Something a little too harsh in the flavor. You'd be surprised how specific kimchi lovers can get. Also, how hard it is for kimchi lovers to get their non-Korean significant others to kiss them after they eat it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Kimly: Crab Market Crab Shack, Awesome Fried Shrimp

Kimly Restaurant
Crab Market (if you're in Kep, you can't miss it)
Kep, Cambodia

Kimly is the most popular restaurant in Kep's Crab Market cluster of eateries, attracting a mixture of both Khmer and Western custom. Specializing in fresh seafood, and with a more extensive menu than other Crab Market restaurants, it attracts a cracking business during holidays, and is usually pleasingly quiet during the week. Everything is fresh, of course: you may note this place is built over the ocean.

Kimly is even so successful that they've built a guesthouse near Knai Bang Chatt: haven't been there yet, doubt they put crab-scented air fresheners in the rooms but one never knows.

I like the crab stir-fried with coconut milk the best: Kep's small, sweet, and tasty crabs pre-cracked and given a run through a thick and rather throughly spiced sauce. There's green capsicum and a little onion and green pepper involved as well. Kimly bears the virtue of never overdoing their crabs, rendering them chewy and displeasing.

We also tried the grilled squid with french fries. Simple enough - isn't everyone in the Crab Market selling squid grilled over a charcoal flame? - and pretty good with some beer. I confess that I'm not very keen on squid unless it is deep fried or stuffed with something, but my boyfriend deemed it very good. The fries were just OK, a bit limp, but there's really only so much one can expect.

I went for the stir-fried crabs with Kampot pepper on my next visit. It's a rather similar sauce to that used for the coconut milk crabs, sans coconut milk: plenty of earthy spices, green pepper, and green onion. The standout flavor is of course the fresh crispness of Kampot pepper, which is green, edible, and a nice reminder that pepper doesn't actually generate in little glass table shakers. Kimly's version of crab with Kampot pepper is not subtle - for a subtle approach, I prefer Trei, down the Crab Market row a few establishments or so. But this is good.

The real winner at Kimly may be the deep-fried shrimp with batter (make sure to specify to the waiter that you don't want shrimp fried in *butter*). If you order the medium version, you get a massive platter of fresh, delectable tail on shrimp with a crunchy but not ultra heavy crust. Delicious stuff and made me long for some Carolina-style special sauce to accompany, although the sweet chili and ketchup on offer did the job condiments-wise. People at other tables were staring at these longingly and asking what we ordered. Do it.