In a recent attempt to change my life, I cut my hair, changed my sheets and decided to give up carbs. The beer belly had to go, but I wasn’t sure where in Phnom Penh I could escape the rice trail.
Luckily, there’s Russian Market. One corner is home to a handful of small seafood barbecues. They’re all decent, but one – the restaurant right in the middle – is exceptional.
Dining there is more than a meal; it’s a culinary experience. You sit on the plastic chairs and wait, watching squid, prawns, stingray and clams, beautifully fresh and seasoned with a sauce of garlic chilli and sugar, sizzle above the charcoal fire. It smells of the ocean.
Rightly or wrongly, I take popularity as an indicator of cleanliness. Whenever I’m there for dinner, the place is packed: groups of men, women and couples giggle together, feasting and licking their fingers. Shiny cutlery is kept in Tupperware, and servers wear disposable plastic gloves.
It looks so clean, in fact, that I usually dare to order oysters as a starter. Just 1,500 riel apiece, they go well with the raw veggies on ice.
The real treats, however, are the mains, which come straight from the grill. Small portions go for 5,000 riel, and are a great size for sharing (big are 10,000).
The mackerel is a revelation. It comes wrapped in tinfoil, covered in ginger and some fried onions. The ginger and onion had drawn into the fish and gave it a subtle aromatic note that unfolded when the tender and yet al dente meat fell into flakes on my tongue. Needs absolutely nothing to go with it.
The prawns are delicious: juicy, thanks to the garlic-chilli sugar-glazing, and perfectly soft. The squid manages to be both delicate and crispy, especially on the tentacles, which are guzzled with a satisfying crunch.
One warning: don’t come for the mini stingrays, which suffer from a chalky taste that I imagine somewhat akin to limestone.
The little place with the four high-heeled waitresses has become my regular. The service is attentive and personal - a real pleasure in the chaotic hustle and bustle of Tuol Tompoung.
Street 450, restaurant in the middle under the market canopy, open from 5pm.