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Denise Heywood on the town

Denise Heywood on the town

O ver Chinese Lunar New Year we watched the dragon dancers parading around and

then repaired to Dragon Court, the new Chinese restaurant at the

Cambodiana.

Luxuriously appointed with thick carpets, yellow table

cloths, high backed chairs and glorious river views, Dragon Court also has four

private dining rooms. Waiters are dressed in scarlet silk Chinese jackets and

black trousers. All is presided over by Singaporean Executive Chinese Chef, Lee

Yan Hai, 33, appareled in a dazzling white, perfectly pressed and starched

uniform, with a large chef's hat. This is how chefs are supposed to look. Lee

Yan Hai is also appropriately rotund, proof, he exclaimed, that he has loved

food since he was a child. He talked about food with such enthusiasm that at

times we almost forgot to eat.

Lee arrived in Cambodia four moths ago,

and has created an eclectic Chinese menu. "There are many people here from

different countries and cultures, so I have mixed Szechuan, Cantonese,

Singaporean, Hong Kong and Taiwanese."

For the opening he prepared a

traditional New Year Salad. Raw fish is eaten with this during the two week New

Year period because fish multiply and therefore signify prosperity. This dish

was made with thinly-sliced abalone with shredded raw turnip, grated carrots,

preserves of crystallized cucumber and ginger, crushed peanuts, crushed

crackers, plum sauce, lemon sauce and onion pickle.

Traditionally. everybody puts their chopsticks into the salad to toss it,

another symbolic act. The taste was fresh, and mixed soft and crunchy texture,

enhanced by the delicate abalone.

Then we ate small pieces of chicken

covered with lightly roasted almonds, moist and crispy, which almost melted in

the mouth. These are a Taiwanese specialty, and are dusted with custard powder

and egg, then deep fried. In a steamer, we found little palm leaf envelopes

which contained two slices of pineapple with steamed chicken breast between

them. We liked the round slices of braised marrow, topped with shrimp paste and

delicious crab meat. Next we tried Kai Lin Ko turtle shell pudding. This Hong

Kong specialty is made with 12 types of Chinese pounded herbs and, we regret to

say, powdered turtle shell. We would prefer turtles to stay swimming in the sea.

But here was this magnificent black jelly, wondrous, we were assured, for health

and skin. It had a medicinal taste, perhaps induced by the color. There were

sweet lotus shaped confections, made with flour, and stuffed with lotus paste.

Finally, we tasted mango pudding, made of milk, and beautifully presented with

slivers of mango, melon and cherries. This sumptuous feast was accompanied by

herb tea. "Herb tea is good for health." explained Lee.

You should dine

here receiving your traditional New Year envelope containing money. Abalone

ranges from $28.80 - $56. Chicken with almond $5.50 small, $10.00 large. Kai Lin

jelly $3.80. It you have a craving for braised shark fin, a large dish costs

$88. Suckling pig ("the best in Cambodia" declared Lee) is $8.80. We were

intrigued by Snow Frog Jelly, $18.80, to be ordered 24 hours in

advance.

If the Year of the Pig has not, so far, proved financially

prosperous, then you can eat more cheaply by crossing the Japanese Friendship

Bridge and visiting one of the hundreds of restaurants that have sprung up along

Route 6a since the bridge opened last year. They provide a calm getaway from the

firecrackers which, according to our Chinese friend, are supposed to ward off

evil spirits, Judging from the number of people dining here they warded off most

of the city's inhabitants too. We chose a palm-thatched wooden cafe on stilts

over the water, called Steung Sang Ke, three kilometers down on the left,

diagonally opposite the more famous Hang Neak restaurant. Here we contemplated

the peaceful vista, with graceful egrets, Brahminy Kites and kingfishers

swooping over the water and fields of neatly planted vegetables.

Steung

Sang Ke is run by Keo Piseth, 40, who also works at the Ministry of Economics

and Finance. He opened three months ago, with no experience, to take advantage

of the restaurant boom here. His waitresses have even less experience, so we

trooped into the kitchen to order. There were many traditional Cambodian dishes,

including fried vegetables and chicken. We ate the local specialty, Banh Chheo,

flat yellow pancakes made with rice flour, and filled with bean shoots and

minced chicken or pork. They are dipped in a sweet sauce filled with crushed

cashews, and served with huge platters of crisp lettuce, cucumber and mint. The

bill for four, including soft drinks, was $3.

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