Malo Gruget, the 25-year-old chef and manager at Naang, which opened its doors last month, describes his cuisine as classic French with Cambodian inspiration.
A look at the menu makes clear what he means. From the appetisers to the desserts, all of the offerings are recognisably Western dishes with a few ingredients swapped out for local flavourings.
It’s a taste he refrains from calling “fusion” but prefers to call “Cambodian-inspired”.
“I smoke the salmon myself with local jasmine tea; or, for example, the foie gras is marinated in Khmer coffee and black currant liqueur,” he says.
Gruget’s Cambodian influence isn’t by happenstance; he first came to Phnom Penh five years ago as a trainee cook at the capital’s well-known Topaz and Malis restaurants for several month-long stints.
After returning to Europe, he sought out opportunities to come back to the Kingdom; he found it by taking a job as a chef for the French Embassy where, until early 2016, he worked for two years.
There, he says, he had the freedom to experiment with local ingredients, serving up an ever-changing array of meals to embassy guests, who – honoured to be at the embassy – would not complain about the food.
“If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t a problem… I still had a lot to learn, even for the classic dishes,” he says.
That experimentation on embassy VIPs has resulted in a menu that is sure to please the public at this stylishly decorated locale that combines modern industrial décor with colonial tiles and a shadow-puppet motif – from which the name Naang, an archaic Khmer word for the ancient art form, comes.
To start, the refreshing svay and herring ($4) salad is an excellent introduction to Gruget’s concept, with the green mango offering a welcome counterpoint to the salty smoked fish.
For the main course, the sach tier and choucroute ($9), a dish composed of pan-fried duck breast accompanied by a carrot and pink pepper puree and sauerkraut – except it’s made with bok choy instead of cabbage – is a sensory delight.
To round out the meal with something sweet, Post Weekend recommends Blumenthal’s French toast ($4), prepared in the style of British chef Heston Blumenthal. Gruget serves the caramelised variation of the classic pain perdu with a crisp of bacon and a scoop of soursop ice cream – just to remind you: this isn’t Paris, its Phnom Penh.
Naang is on the ground floor of the Monsoon Hotel, #8 Street 294 (on the corner of Street 9).