We try to avoid Monivong Boulevard with its noise and traffic. But if we have
to go, we pace ourselves with pit-stops. The Allson Hotel is a good bolt hole
offering a calm respite between errands.
The buffet lunch in the hotel's East West restaurant is a gourmand's and
gourmet's delight, with a cornucopia of eastern and western food. The restaurant
is an extension of the lobby. Although you can still see all the chaos outside
through the picture frame window, it looks more like a movie screen showing a
wild west film. The cool, quiet interior is decorated in relaxing shades of
beige and pale pink, with easy armchairs, newspapers, attractively-laid tables
and helpful staff, watched over by attentive French manager Franck Lafourcade.
There's noodle soup to start and fresh salads, mixed and plain, with
exciting combinations of raw vegetables and diced pineapple, pasta, gleaming
pink shrimp and glass noodles, with a variety of dressings and creamy
mayonnaise. Some had too much raw onion which, with excessive garlic, we find
antisocial. A selection of pates and saucisson, decorated with olives, occupy a
whole table, with crispy French baguette and nutty brown rolls. Next there is a
row of warm earthenware pots. Lifting the lid of each, we tasted zucchini tossed
in garlic from one, lightly steamed but crisp vegetables marinating in a milky
coconut sauce in the next, spicy curried potatoes and eggplant in another, and
outrageous pommes de terre dauphinoise, a long-time favorite, in another.
Another row of chrome hot dishes contained, successively, spaghetti with
bolognaise sauce, and huge langoustines which begged to be prised apart. A
variety of meat dishes, constantly renewed throughout the lunch period, included
beef filet, sautéed beef, and beef in pepper sauce, accompanied by tender
braised cabbage and baked cauliflower. An array of cheeses followed. Then we
attacked the desserts: banana bread jostled with chocolate swirl poundcake,
sweet jellies and coconut confections, tropical fruits, chocolate and vanilla
ice-cream and, best of all, crumbly, creamy cheesecake.
All this costs $6
at lunchtime and $9 in the evening. "We have a few extra dishes at night," said
Lafourcade, "and a wide selection of French wines." Accompanied by French
burgundy, this is the kind of lunch which can stretch well into the afternoon,
as conversation mellows and the wild west movie recedes into the distance. Our
companions reminisced about the Phnom Penh they had known during the 1960s, when
they used to lunch regularly at Chez Jean, the best French restaurant, opposite
the colonial Post Office and beautiful old Police Station. The streets were
scrubbed clean and lined with shady trees, a joy to stroll along.
are hard to imagine when you're trapped in the dust and throng on Monivong. But
another cool oasis to take refuge is Chef's Deli, behind the Pailin Hotel. This
small, clean, air-conditioned cafe reminds us of those 'drugstore' coffeeshops
in New York, with the same tables and stools fixed to the floor, and the
waitress constantly refilling your coffee for the price of one cup. So does the
glass display case filled with cakes and cookies. These are among the best in
the city, matched only by the delicious ones in the Cambodiana's boulangerie.
The banana bread, moist but not too sweet, and light sponge coffee cake, at 60
cents a slice, are perfect. There is a selection of miniature butter, nut and
chocolate chip cookies, $15 a kilo, and real French patisserie-style, wicked
cakes, between $1.70 and $1.90 a slice. The mango cake is like a creamy soufflé,
whipped to a light consistency, that melts in the mouth, full of the taste of
the incomparable fruit. The coconut cake is baked and dusted with confectioners'
sugar. There is Ang Ga Ga, a Singaporean jelly, in lurid green and pink. It is
made by the owner, Singaporean Ong Tiong Keong, 29, who trained in his home town
but learned to make creme patissier and souffle when he worked as pastry chef at
the Cambodiana. He will make whole cakes for special occasions, such as lemon
layer cake, with icing and writing on top, or Chef's trifle, a rich German
chocolate mix with rum-soaked raisins. Order at least two days in advance, $15
per kilo. A $60 cake feeds 40 people.
Chef's Deli also serves eastern
and western breakfasts, with newspapers to read in four languages. Early
Breakfast includes poached eggs, sausages, ham, toast, and lots of coffee, while
Healthy Breakfast, $2.80, offers yogurt and cereal. Croissants and bread are
baked in their own bakery. Light lunches are served too with Asian Delights, of
laksa, congee and glutinous rice, and Pasta Delights, such as fettucini, $2.80.
Keong is negotiating more premises in the basement of the Hong Kong Center. We'd
like to see a Chef's Deli on every busy street in town.