At first glance Siem Reap’s Marum, the latest restaurant run as a social enterprise, this one by Friends International, might seem an unusual fit for the city: a hospitality training restaurant pitched at discerning tourist diners, and built out of earshot of both shrieking Pub Street and the more lavish Angkor-ama themed garden restaurants of mini stone heads and palm fronds.
Far from the crowds, Marum cuts a classy figure in its dark and quiet Wat Polanka location, on the far side of the river. Set back behind low white walls and fairy-lit trees, the restaurant looks like a new boutique guesthouse, with a green lawn and courtyard for outdoor dining.
Two natural-wood buildings spill light onto the paved dining courtyard with their open-slat walls, creating an intimate indoor-outdoor feel. One house functions as a two-storey indoor dining room, with lime-green walls, while the other is a shop selling Friends products.
Wait staff at Marum wear uniforms with “teacher” and “student” printed on the back, but apart from some nervous smiles, it is hard to tell who is who – the service is attuned and attentive. When my canary-yellow cocktail arrives with a bright chili flower and wedge of pineapple, I am perfectly happy to wait alone and enjoy the drink: a cold frothy, peppery margarita that tastes equally of tequila and fresh pineapple with a fine crystalline rim of hot chili salt.
Marum’s menu includes 21 small dishes under $6, including these dumplings. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post
My group of three arrives hungry, and we order a quickly chosen assortment of six smaller dishes, including meatballs, salad and dumplings, all to come out at the same time. The menu of mostly Khmer and Asian fusion dishes – including one or two favourites from Romdeng, Friends’ Phnom Penh eatery – is divided into 21 smaller dishes ($3.25-$6) and five bigger entree-sized ($5.75-$6.50), and includes some Indian and Middle Eastern influences. The choice vegetarian smaller dishes menu leans towards eclectic California-fusion type flavours with rice balls, seaweed rolls, pumpkin seed salads and “lotus, jackfruit and coriander hummus with toasted baguette”.
The ginger and basil beef meatballs in a green curry sauce prove deliciously moist and vaguely Middle Eastern, in an aromatic light, green-flecked coconut sauce. They make a surprising taste match with the stuffed five-spices chicken, which comes wrapped around Siem Reap sausage and lotus seeds and sliced, the savoury filling a noodly contrast of textures.
The crispy rice noodle and tofu salad is a large serving of a more traditional dish – sweet potato and coriander spring rolls nestled among the salad – but my friends love it and it is crunchy and fresh, with none of the grease of street versions.
For some real salad, I order a coconut, beetroot, young palm heart and toasted seed mix. Shaves of sweet fruit and palm hearts are an excellent match – and covered in a creamy basil lime dressing, they make a kind of Caribbean-tasting coleslaw.
In catering for diverse tastes Marum has found its niche, offering a refreshing, affordable menu in a stylish setting away from the tourist hubbub. Next time I’ll leave room for dessert.