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On The Town

G reen galvanised sheeting obscured our view of the stars as we dined outside at

the Chao Phra Ya restaurant on Norodom Boulevard.

Tables and chairs are

set outside in the forecourt of this stylish French building which dates from

1931. It used to be the Health Service Office in the days of the Protectorate.

The exterior has not changed much, except that galvanised sheeting has replaced

the tiles on the sloping roof which provided shade over the long shuttered

windows. To compensate for the stars, every tree and nook and cranny has been

festooned with fairy lights. The atmosphere is festive and crowds of customers,

predominantly Cambodians, Thai, Chinese and Singaporeans, swirl around. For this

Thai-owned restaurant offers a bounteous buffet which would have met with the

approval of the Health Service. Behind long counters chefs prepare acres of

protein and vitamins in the shape of barbecued crabs, shrimp, lobsters and

langoustine, chicken, duck and beef, western salads, Thai salads, Japanese

sushi, noodle soups, fish stews, hot vegetable curries, garlic bread, prawn

crackers, assorted rice, fruit salads and Thai desserts. You could be

nutritionally set up for a week, which would make it a bargain at $12 a

head.

The sheer quantity of food, however, slightly eclipses the quality.

Dozens of tantalizing crabs and jumbo shrimps jump straight from the barbecue to

your plate, but somewhere they have lost their freshness and are overcooked and

rather dried out. The salads, all garnished with a similar creamy sauce, seem to

have a uniform taste. The sushi was good, but did not have the succulence of

having been prepared minutes before. Kwaytio, a noodle soup, was excellent,

according to my companion, with a selection of egg noodles, fine slices of beef,

and condiments. "I just pointed to what I wanted and they chucked it all in," he

sighed contentedly. Haw mok, a fish curry in green coconut milk sauce, was

appetising, but a little dry and we couldn't detect the subtle ingredients such

as coriander and ginger. The roast beef was good, rare and tender. Thai style

salad, Som tam, was zestful. This shredded green papaya salad is pounded in a

bowl with tomatoes, chillis, garlic, chopped dried shrimps and lemon. The fruit

was varied and there were slices of a delicious Thai baked cake called Sangkaya,

made of peanuts crushed to a paste, with a hint of almond, as well as Leenchee

loi mek, a custard and lychee pudding.

We drank Australian Hanwood

Chardonnay at $16 a bottle. By 9:30 everyone had cleared out. This is serious

eating and there is no lingering under the fairy lights

afterwards.

Another outdoor venue is Boeung Kak Lake. There are two

restaurants on wooden jetties over the water, and one of them, the Boung Thong,

is also Thai. They serve Khmer, Chinese and Western food too. It has five wooden

open-sided buildings, named after provinces such as Siem Reap and Battambang,

where you can enjoy the breeze and the sunset.

There was no manager, but

droves of waiters flocked around the table, as we were the only customers. We

brought our own sparkling wine which they willingly put into an ice bucket. It

was disconcerting, though, to have them then cluster around and stare at us

throughout our meal. The music blasting from speakers was obtrusive, and we had

to plead to have it turned down. After all, the attraction of a haven like this

is the peace.

We enjoyed chicken sauteed with ginger. Seafood salad had

ripe tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber and big, juicy shrimps, but the squid was

tough and rubbery. Green beef curry arrived in a heated soup tureen, accompanied

by rice. Its green colour is due to the large number of green chillies pounded

to a paste, the basis of this hot curry. Chilli pepper is a New World spice and

was not introduced into Thailand until the late 16th century, but now appears in

almost every dish. The curry was full of eggplant, tamarind, cumin and

coriander, a piquant blend. But it was excessively oily, and being over a flame,

was just too hot to eat.

Tom Kha Khai is chicken in a creamy coconut

soup, fragrant with ka, or laos, an exotic spice, and full of mushrooms. It was

also in a heated dish and again, very oily. We ate Phak phat ruam mit, mixed

fried vegetables, and also Pad Thai, fried noodles with shrimp. This was good.

The noodles were thick and al dente, smothered in a nutty textured sauce with

shrimps. Dishes cost between $5 - $7 each. There is a buffet in the

evenings.

The attraction of both these restaurants lies in the abundance

of food and the al fresco setting. However, for real gourmet Thai food, we still

think that the Chiang Mai is hard to beat.

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