Eels and frogs may not sound like the most enticing fare on a best-selling restaurant’s menu, but all this and more is served at the much-feted eatery Cuisine Wat Damnak, which has just re-opened after a short summer hiatus.
Cuisine Wat Damnak originally opened a year and a half ago, and has become a firm favourite among diners, ranking number 7 on Tripadvisor, lauded by Condé Nast Traveller, and praised by the renowned and famously perfectionist French-born OK celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, who blogged about Wat Damnak chef-owner Joannès Rivière, exclaiming, “Oh mon Dieu, this man can cook.”
Former Hotel de la Paix executive chef Rivière and his wife Carole seem to have come up with a winning formula: two degustation menus, changing every week, using locally-sourced, seasonal produce to create Khmer dishes with a twist. And all served in the delightful setting of a converted traditional Khmer house and a pretty herb garden.
“The idea was really to showcase Cambodian products,” says Rivière. “The primary concept is a Cambodian restaurant that’s not based on typical recipes you’ve seen around. We tend to reduce Cambodian food to a bunch of recipes but Cambodian cuisine is first of all a cuisine based on products.
“And so we start from a cut of meat, a good fish or an interesting vegetable – a little bit like a housewife would do when she goes to the market. That’s why we don’t have amok on the menu and green mango salad with smoked fish, things like that.”
The menu is based around whatever is in season, and Rivière actively seeks out atypical or hard-to-get ingredients.
“All of our vegetables except shallots are grown in Cambodia, guaranteed, because I work with a cooperative of farmers in the Bakong temple who grow them. Plus, the vegetables we serve are unusual.”
He indicates his present menu which includes prawn soup with tamarind shoots and sesbania flowers –“small yellow flowers” – and pork ribs and wild candle yam curry.
“Those vegetables are all local but on a very small scale. They are available but they are just not mass-produced. They are extremely common for Cambodians.”
On the same menu eels are featured for the first time as well as frog meat, which Rivière charmingly describes as tasting “froggish,” pointing out that Cambodia is the place to try this readily available produce – as indeed many customers do.
Also making an appearance is duck and egg in “pong tia kone style” which is inspired by the embryo egg popular among Khmers, which is a boiled egg containing a duck embryo. Rivière’s version is more palatable, one suspects, for westerners.
He says it is, “A scrambled duck egg with duck meat on top, served with herbs, lime and pepper. The idea was to serve the embryo egg without the embryo. It’s funny because it makes a very simple dish but it’s actually really, really good.”
Although the menu is constantly changing, Rivière says there are some recurring dishes which have proved firm favourites such as roasted chicken, beef cheek curry and a dried fish soup.
The restaurant attracts both western and Khmer customers, something that Rivière says “means a lot” to him.
“We bring some sort of nostalgia to our Cambodian clientele and that’s interesting because we have people saying, ‘Oh those frogs, they taste like the frogs my mother used to make’.
“But the effect on people, it’s quite rewarding. The feedback we get also from Cambodians is that it’s not Cambodian but it tastes like Cambodian.”