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High-end, low-cost Khmer cuisine fit for a king

Garuda Khmer’s outside dining area is full of lush foliage.
Garuda Khmer’s outside dining area is full of lush foliage. Eli Meixler

High-end, low-cost Khmer cuisine fit for a king

Garuda Khmer has an unusual menu that includes dishes traditionally served to royalty

Garuda Khmer has set up shop with the goal of using Cambodian dishes to build a fine dining experience of international acclaim. It’s the kind of “modernisation” project that frequently goes awry – plates get bigger, portions get smaller, chefs make misguided stabs at fusion cuisine.

Thankfully in this instance, the brief has been executed in unpretentious good taste. Located in a two-storey house on Street 466 and separated from the road by a walled courtyard packed with potted palms, Garuda Khmer is a welcome oasis of good, local dining in Phnom Penh.

Eschewing the somewhat clinical pall of air-conditioned eating, the restaurant is cooled with fans, and open doors and windows contribute to the relaxed feel of the dining room. Wooden panelling and yellow painted walls soften what could have been an austere combination of high ceilings and hard floors, as does the oversized foliage spilling in from the courtyard – one plaited palm approaches the ceiling.

The menu is long and generously illustrated, which is helpful – although Garuda Khmer specialises in Cambodian food, there’s a lot here that you’re unlikely to have spotted at your local rice-and-noodles lunch spot.

To start with, the snacks. We tried both the Nieng Tang and the Nieng Lao – our interest piqued by the waitress’s assertion that on the rare occasion that these dainty treats are served today, it’s in the royal palace.

The intricacy of the Nieng Lao – inch long parcels of pork meat, crushed, spiced and folded into a thin leaf – will dampen the spirits of anyone who’s ever felt smug about rolling a passable dolma.

Nieng Tang appetisers: crispy sticky rice cakes topped with fish amok sauce
Nieng Tang appetisers: crispy sticky rice cakes topped with fish amok sauce. Eli Meixler

Whether they’re food fit for a king is up to you and your dining companions to decide. It was fit enough for opposition leader Sam Rainsy who, as Facebook photos prove, turned up to the opening, though staff didn’t disclose what he sampled.

The main menu is divided into several sections, with “Classic Khmer” offering the standard options, and “Garuda’s Extraordinary Specialties” the outlandish. At the boilerplate end of the spectrum, curries and stir fries are good solid fare – well flavoured and served with delicately sliced vegetables. Most mains come in at between $4.50 and $7, and are also available in a smaller portion size for sharing.

We tried the Hot Basil Chicken, followed by a passable Fish Amok, which came served in neatly pinned mini banana leaf bowls. This is tasty, well presented food prepared with care – garnishes are crisp and colourful, rice holds together well without being overcooked and attentive staff make sure everything arrives in perfectly timed succession.

Things get more interesting, and the meats more unusual, with the “Khmer Specials” part of the menu, which features steamed snails, stir-fried frog, and garnishes of fried red tree ants. We came to the frogs as unaccustomed amphibian eaters, and were pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, as always, “it tastes just like chicken” is the most accurate description available – albeit lots of little chickens with really tiny bones.

And at the end of the “out there” spectrum, “Garuda’s Extraordinary Specialties” do not belie the name: steamed goose eggs, stuffed crabs and, our table’s choice, the marinated pork knuckle. At $15 it seemed a reasonably priced flirtation with extravagance and gave the rest of our meal a touch of Tudor-banquet chic.

As with the more standard fare, the dish was evidence of a proud and skilful kitchen. The knuckle was evenly hollowed and packed tightly with pork belly and mushroom.

The fact that its casing wasn’t quite crisped was a pity – most likely the result of a hurry to get food on the table. The Tudors probably had more than 40 minutes to prepare their feasts.

The news that Garuda Khmer’s chef used to work at Romdeng, and had a hand in devising the menus in both kitchens, will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the two restaurants. Perhaps the staff transfer speaks of the difficulty that restaurateurs have in finding knowledgeable local professionals with a passion for Khmer cuisine.

Although still in its infancy, Garuda Khmer has the potential to establish itself alongside its chef’s former employer as one of only a few restaurants in the city serving up quality, inventive Cambodian food.

Garuda Khmer is located at #21 Street 466.

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