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Cambodia’s celebrity chef at last brings Malis to Siem Reap

Chef Luu Meng’s take on ‘living Cambodian cuisine’: green mango with smoked fish salad. SAM WALKER
Chef Luu Meng’s take on ‘living Cambodian cuisine’: green mango with smoked fish salad. SAM WALKER

Cambodia’s celebrity chef at last brings Malis to Siem Reap

Malis, a name long associated with some of the finest dining in Cambodia, and with the Kingdom’s premier chef, Luu Meng, has finally opened its doors in Siem Reap with a blessing held on Monday afternoon, and the first guests received that evening.

It may have seemed like a long time coming, but the reasons for that lay more in the desire to find the right location than in any lack of faith in Siem Reap. It took Meng and his business partners almost five years to find a location that felt right to them, on the emerging town-end of Pokambor Avenue.

“We checked so many locations, I don’t know how many trips we did, but nothing caught us,” Meng said while in town to cook up a special introductory dinner for industry guests last December. “Of course, if we wanted to do it quickly, we could have done it, but that’s not what we’re about.”

The location and newly constructed building look set to impress though. Two-thousand square metres of floor space has been developed to cater to 300 diners at a time– 200 downstairs and 100 VIPs upstairs. Upstairs, specially adapted kitchens have also been installed for those who want to sign up for cooking classes with Meng himself, which are set to launch soon.

On the outside, the powerful, white-faced building dominates its environment and is designed to evoke the temples of Angkor, in particular the remains of Prasat Kravan. Inside, the theme continues with polished sandstone walls, receding rectangular window frames echoing temple structures, and at the centre, a pool-garden provides a space for classical dance performances.

The menu will remain broadly the same as Malis in Phnom Penh, albeit shorter, with dishes selected based on what is locally available. To Meng’s surprise, some of the things he would take for granted in Phnom Penh are not so easily available in Siem Reap, including coconuts. Or, at least, coconuts that meet his very exacting standards.

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The new dining room at Malis, Siem Reap. SAM WALKER

“We couldn’t find the right ones, that are as creamy and aromatic as the ones we get from near Kampot and use in Phnom Penh. We will have to try many things, many times, to make sure it’s all correct.

I was so glad that happened though,” he said, despite the fact that the discovery necessitated a last-minute menu change for a meal he had to cook in general manager Sao Moun Daung’s home kitchen because the restaurant kitchens were not yet completed in December.

Meng described Malis’ cuisine as living Cambodian cuisine, remembering the ingredients and influences of the past but benefiting from the technologies, techniques and ingredients of today.

“My partner, Arnaud [Darc], and I feel very protective of Cambodian cuisine,” he said. “It is such a unique blend of Khmer, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and French flavours and styles – there is really nothing like it in the world”.

The opening comes at a difficult time for the hospitality sector in Siem Reap, where the number of new establishments continues to grow, while the number of visitors appears to be faltering, with even well-established Pub Street businesses reporting double-digit drops on December last year.

As relaxed as he ever is, Meng is unphased and thinks the answers lie in greater co-operation within the sector.

“The number of tourists going up or down depends on the community,” he said. “You can prepare at a certain level, but the industry needs to unite so that they can highlight the benefits of Cambodia, and bring more people here. For that, we all need to put competition in the corner.”

Malis, which is located in Pokambor Avenue north of Old Market, is currently in its “soft opening” phase. The grand opening of the restaurant will be on Feburary 19. Tel: 016 804 888.

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