Should you find yourself seeking a place to bring visiting friends or relatives eager to sample some traditional local fare but not keen on walking the tastebud tightrope of a Southeast Asian culinary adventure or potentially contracting an intestinal parasite, then I urge you to consider Calmette restaurant.
Ideally located for the hypochondriac diner next door to the eponymous hospital, the establishment has what few others in the capital boast – decades of business. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a reliable adage and one that the owners of Calmette seem to have adhered to since its inception way back in 1984.
The same quirky wooden sign lit by fluorescent tube greets the customers as they walk in, and the bright lights inside reveal similarly unchanged and uninspiring décor that was possibly never in fashion. But you should do as I do now, and concentrate on the food.
Having patronised the restaurant on numerous occasions over my years in the Kingdom, I knew what to expect from the menu, which is now replete with appetising photos of most dishes set in laminated sheets – as English comedian Bill Bailey would put it: “To catch the tears of joy.” Ordering errors should be avoided through picture pointing, and the courteous staff generally speak excellent English.
Any self-respecting Khmer eatery has an abundance of fish courses, and Calmette is no exception. However, my attention is usually centred on the beef plear.
Plear, in my opinion, is a highly underrated Cambodian dish eclipsed by the likes of amok and lok lak. Variations featuring seafood and pork are common at weddings, but my personal favourite is the beef, which should be raw but sealed in lime juice.
Essentially it’s a spicy sour salad, and the one at Calmette includes onion, capsicum, peanuts, green tomato, mint, a few other Asian herbs, a moderate amount of chopped chilies, all tossed onto a bed of crispy fried vermicelli and doused in fish sauce. The combination titillates the tongue and smacks of tangy freshness. My partner and I opted for a small plate worth every cent of the $4 price tag.
Also in our selection, and what easily could have served as a starter had I not been so ravenous, was the fried eggs with cheese fish, or rather fermented fish omelette. This is not quite on a par with the extreme flavours of the notorious delicacy known as prahok, but it certainly provides a nice step up off a western palate and into the realms of eastern cuisine. It’s non-offensive and crucially non-pungent, so well worth sampling for just $3 with accompanying salad.
Other orders included a well balanced small serving of tom yum seafood soup ($4) and a plate load of deep fried taro stuffed spring rolls ($3.75), which were distractingly crunchy enough to make me forget to count them.
Chugging beer bottles seemed inappropriate for this particular feast, so we went for some jasmine green tea on ice at just $0.25 each. White rice was also heaped out intermittently for $0.75 per head.
All that was left was to ask for the bill, at which point we were presented with little bowls of sweet bean porridge to cap things off nicely. The service was swift and accurate, although we were the last left in the place which, according to staff, is busiest at lunch. Calmette Restaurant has that simple yet endearing formula that has kept me coming back for years already, consistently reminding me of all I love about Cambodian food.