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On The Town

We try to avoid Monivong Boulevard with its noise and traffic. But if we have

to go, we pace ourselves with pit-stops. The Allson Hotel is a good bolt hole

offering a calm respite between errands.

The buffet lunch in the hotel's East West restaurant is a gourmand's and

gourmet's delight, with a cornucopia of eastern and western food. The restaurant

is an extension of the lobby. Although you can still see all the chaos outside

through the picture frame window, it looks more like a movie screen showing a

wild west film. The cool, quiet interior is decorated in relaxing shades of

beige and pale pink, with easy armchairs, newspapers, attractively-laid tables

and helpful staff, watched over by attentive French manager Franck Lafourcade.

There's noodle soup to start and fresh salads, mixed and plain, with

exciting combinations of raw vegetables and diced pineapple, pasta, gleaming

pink shrimp and glass noodles, with a variety of dressings and creamy

mayonnaise. Some had too much raw onion which, with excessive garlic, we find

antisocial. A selection of pates and saucisson, decorated with olives, occupy a

whole table, with crispy French baguette and nutty brown rolls. Next there is a

row of warm earthenware pots. Lifting the lid of each, we tasted zucchini tossed

in garlic from one, lightly steamed but crisp vegetables marinating in a milky

coconut sauce in the next, spicy curried potatoes and eggplant in another, and

outrageous pommes de terre dauphinoise, a long-time favorite, in another.

Another row of chrome hot dishes contained, successively, spaghetti with

bolognaise sauce, and huge langoustines which begged to be prised apart. A

variety of meat dishes, constantly renewed throughout the lunch period, included

beef filet, sautéed beef, and beef in pepper sauce, accompanied by tender

braised cabbage and baked cauliflower. An array of cheeses followed. Then we

attacked the desserts: banana bread jostled with chocolate swirl poundcake,

sweet jellies and coconut confections, tropical fruits, chocolate and vanilla

ice-cream and, best of all, crumbly, creamy cheesecake.

All this costs $6

at lunchtime and $9 in the evening. "We have a few extra dishes at night," said

Lafourcade, "and a wide selection of French wines." Accompanied by French

burgundy, this is the kind of lunch which can stretch well into the afternoon,

as conversation mellows and the wild west movie recedes into the distance. Our

companions reminisced about the Phnom Penh they had known during the 1960s, when

they used to lunch regularly at Chez Jean, the best French restaurant, opposite

the colonial Post Office and beautiful old Police Station. The streets were

scrubbed clean and lined with shady trees, a joy to stroll along.

They

are hard to imagine when you're trapped in the dust and throng on Monivong. But

another cool oasis to take refuge is Chef's Deli, behind the Pailin Hotel. This

small, clean, air-conditioned cafe reminds us of those 'drugstore' coffeeshops

in New York, with the same tables and stools fixed to the floor, and the

waitress constantly refilling your coffee for the price of one cup. So does the

glass display case filled with cakes and cookies. These are among the best in

the city, matched only by the delicious ones in the Cambodiana's boulangerie.

The banana bread, moist but not too sweet, and light sponge coffee cake, at 60

cents a slice, are perfect. There is a selection of miniature butter, nut and

chocolate chip cookies, $15 a kilo, and real French patisserie-style, wicked

cakes, between $1.70 and $1.90 a slice. The mango cake is like a creamy soufflé,

whipped to a light consistency, that melts in the mouth, full of the taste of

the incomparable fruit. The coconut cake is baked and dusted with confectioners'

sugar. There is Ang Ga Ga, a Singaporean jelly, in lurid green and pink. It is

made by the owner, Singaporean Ong Tiong Keong, 29, who trained in his home town

but learned to make creme patissier and souffle when he worked as pastry chef at

the Cambodiana. He will make whole cakes for special occasions, such as lemon

layer cake, with icing and writing on top, or Chef's trifle, a rich German

chocolate mix with rum-soaked raisins. Order at least two days in advance, $15

per kilo. A $60 cake feeds 40 people.

Chef's Deli also serves eastern

and western breakfasts, with newspapers to read in four languages. Early

Breakfast includes poached eggs, sausages, ham, toast, and lots of coffee, while

Healthy Breakfast, $2.80, offers yogurt and cereal. Croissants and bread are

baked in their own bakery. Light lunches are served too with Asian Delights, of

laksa, congee and glutinous rice, and Pasta Delights, such as fettucini, $2.80.

Keong is negotiating more premises in the basement of the Hong Kong Center. We'd

like to see a Chef's Deli on every busy street in town.

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