There we sat, surrounded by the buzz of Pchum Ben festivities in a remote Svay Rieng province village, rain pounding on the tin roof above our heads, feasting on varieties of pond life: tiny frogs, fish and morning glory, cooked up in tasty curries.
My Khmer friends chuckled as an Australian friend and I squirmed and gulped down bunches of leafy greens and stalks dunked in a large dollop of prahok. Heady, piquant, pungent. Definitely an acquired taste.
Five months on, sitting in Siem Reap’s internationally celebrated Cuisine Wat Damnak, my impression of preserved marine-life was turned on its head.
Here, French chef Joannès Rivière, whose impressive CV cites institutions like Siem Reap’s Hotel de La Paix, is cooking some of the country’s finest food. His version of traditional Cambodian cuisine with a contemporary twist is based around local ingredients rather than a designed menu.
The culinary world has noticed: he guided Rick Stein when the TV chef visited for a series, and another celebrity chef, Raymond Blanc, waxed lyrical on his blog about his meal at Cuisine Wat Damnak. Last month, Rivière appeared as a guest speaker alongside the likes of David Thompson and Seiji Yamamoto at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013 chefs workshop.
Rivière’s expertise is apparent in the restaurant’s muted, minimalist chic. Housed in a renovated Khmer wooden stilt home, the restaurant is ensconced in palms, bamboo and potted herbs. The air-conditioned lower room is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. We were greeted warmly at the entrance by Rivière’s wife and our host for the night, Carole. The 2010 Vigna Dogarina Pinot Grigio ($29) was slightly fruity, dry but velvety. The Tamarind Collins ($4) I started with was probably the best cocktail I’ve had in the country: vodka is infused with pods of the fruit for around three months. Sublime.
Two degustation or “tasting menus” are offered: at $19 for four dishes and $26 for five. We went for the latter – unable to resist the allure of the chocolate ganache desert.
After a day spent rambling through temples, my exhausted parents perused the menu descriptions aloud: lotus, seeds, eel. “What’s maam,” my father, not the most adventurous of eaters, asked suspiciously of Rivière’s take on maam, perhaps a more sophisticated version of prahok. Still, essentially decomposing fish.
I needn’t have worried. The amusé-bouche of a juicy, grilled prawn, served on a coconut, mint and fish-sauce salad, was out-of-this-world good. Soon after, we received the first dish: a duck and lotus salad. My father prodded the lotus seeds, before agreeing the crunchy, nutty texture of the flower’s seeds, roots and stem married perfectly with the crispy, melt-in-your-mouth tender duck. Service was attentive and unfussy.
When the maam arrived, the presentation was nice: violet and buttercup-yellow flowers were artfully placed with herbs and local crudités next to a glass vessel, filled with the creamy maam, baked with minced pork and egg. The texture resembled custard, a little salty, sour and fishy. Overall, the flavours were delicate – nothing like the prahok I’d tried in Svay Rieng. Rivière’s self-proclaimed piece de resistance of the night, the eel, was wonderful: tender, crispy morsels of meat scattered around the plate with cashew nuts and wild mushrooms. The dessert didn’t disappoint: a gooey ball of cinnamon and chocolate ganache was bitter yet still sweet, scooped up with a wafer of crispy puffed rice. After the meal, I asked our chef if there were any plans for a Phnom Penh branch, but my hopes were dashed. “The idea of this restaurant is I have to be there cooking, if I am invited to party or I am sick, I will close the restaurant,” he declared. Despite the six-hour bus journey, Cuisine Wat Damnak is something I will return to Siem Reap for again. Cuisine Wat Damnak, Sala Kamrek Commune , Siem Reap. Open Tuesday to Sunday.