W e decided to go AWOL in Sihanoukville, in the company of the French military who rode gunshot. The only protection we needed at glorious Sokha beach was from sandflies. The best defence is to abandon the sand and attack the delicious stuffed crabs at the beachfront Sokha Cafe.
This succulent dish was followed by huge sauteed prawns, prepared in a caramelised confection of pepper, sugar, lemon and butter. The piéce de résistance, however, was the bananes flambes. The Chinese cook emerged from the smoky depths of the kitchen to confess he had forgotten the recipe, whereupon one of the dashing French officers stepped in. Handling the blackened wok like Escoffier, he sauteed the bananas in sugar and butter, laced them with brandy, then dexterously tipped the lot towards the flame and ignited them. They were brought to the table in triumph. An army, said Napoleon, marches on their stomachs. The pyrotechnics left the staff so stunned that they sulked afterwards and refused to heat up water for coffee.
But we drank expresso after dinner at a French cafe which recently opened in the centre of Sihanoukville called Les Feuilles. Filled appropriately with potted plants, it is run by Gérald and his Vietnamese wife. Service is rather slow but we enjoyed prawns in coconut milk ($6) and good steak and chips ($6). Next morning Gérald cooked traditional English breakfast of bacon and eggs ($3) with fresh French bread.
Back to the city for a birthday celebration at The Cuistot on Street 108. If your party is big, book in advance, because the Cuistot is small.
Located in a former shophouse, the restaurant has a couple of tables and chairs on the pavement, and four more inside. The decor is Phnom Penh minimalist - a lick of cream paint, bare walls and basic furniture. But we were here to eat good food and enjoy the friendly service.
Vincent Graff, 33, the amiable cuistot (French for 'the cook') from Nice, said: "The French want small price and big quality." That's what he's provided, although his compatriots form only 20 percent of his clientele, the rest being Australian and English. Being Nicois, his cooking has a Mediterranean flavour.
We savoured Bohemienne, an eggplant dish cooked in garlic and oil, ($1.50) and Taboulé, made with coucous, but instead of being mixed with parsley, Arab style, it is flavoured lightly with mint. The Pissaladiere, an onion tart, ($1.50) was light and flavourful. Vincent makes his own tagliatelli, red and white, and serves it with more Bohemienne, a winning combination ($3).
Vincent and his wife Patricia, part Italian, Spanish and French, have travelled the world working in different businesses as well as cooking. Now they circulate around the tables giving lots of personal service and were not fazed by our bringing our own wine.
Still on the round of French restaurants, our francophilia was bruised during our visit to Le Cordon Bleu, on Sihanouk Blvd, where we were not impressed by the lunchtime menu. We felt that one boiled egg with mayonnaise, an indifferent pasta and a scoop of icecream were not worth $5, especially as the waitress treated us with such resentment when we requested a glass of water instead of a pricey soft drink, refusing to put ice in it.
But our spirits rose at Magic Circus, a café-theatre at No. 111, Street 360. In this charming, open-air wooden café with a palm-thatched stage, students from the University of Fine Arts' circus school perform every other Wednesday evening, alternating with the professional National Circus Troupe.
The audience sit at candlelit tables to watch clowns, acrobats, jugglers and magicians. A full moon shone above the stage and we were bewitched by one tiny girl in a glittering yellow costume. Mom Sopheak became shy offstage and whispered that she was ten years old. "Actually, she's only eight," confided the director, Nuth Samony, a professor at the school. "She's my best pupil."
The Magic Circus is run by a French trio, including Delphine Kassem, 23, a circus performer. Contemporary and traditional Khmer theatre and music are staged on Fridays and Saturdays. From December, food, such as couscous and chili con carne, will be served every night except Mondays. Entrance donation from $1, dinner $5. The circus starts at 6pm so that children can attend.
It's not only clowns who are sad. Happy Herb Bistro's owner is not happy. "Mine is a sad story," wailed Chim Sophal after he and his partners opened a second pizzeria on Norodom Blvd. The original restaurant was then closed down by the landlord who subsequently reopened it with one of Chim Sophal's former staff. They renamed it Happy Neth Bistro. "That bloody waiter!" cried Sophal, referring prosaically to Neth. Sophal, a former cyclo driver, taught him how to make pizzas. He learned the recipes from Herb Simeone, an American who came here during UNTAC, whom Sophal pedalled around town. Now with the competition, Happy Herb's bistro is ailing. But their 17 varieties of pizzas are as tasty as ever, with a light, crispy crust and oozing cheese. They come in three sizes, $4, $9, $14. If you ring 62349, he delivers free of charge. Pumpkin soup and cucumber soup are $2, feta cheese salad $2. Beer $1.50. Taittinger Champagne $30 - of which "we've never sold a bottle".