Hunting an elusive beast: decent grilled steak in Siem Reap

Hunting an elusive beast: decent grilled steak in Siem Reap

How difficult, dammit, is it to char-grill a steak in the American or Aussie manner? On paper it seems simple: grab a slab of good meat, chuck it on the barbie with heat high, sear one side, flip it, sear it, eat it.

In practice, it seems not so simple in many Asian hangouts, including Siem Reap.

Good steaks can be had in Siem Reap, but they are mostly prepared in what I call European style, which inevitably means on an inadequate heat. The result is a piece of beef that’s more stewed than grilled.

I love the smell of charred meat in the evening, and I still hanker for a decent grilled steak that has that slightly-burnt, charcoal tang on the outside and tender, juicy meat on the inside.

There is, of course, the downside that char-grilled steaks can be a tad carcinogenic, but at times life has to be lived dangerously and, let’s face it, a cow died to provide the steak, and that must mean something on the Karmic wheel.

Then chance, fate, destiny, whatever, drew me back to the trendy Nest Angkor Café Bar. I regarded Nest simply as a good bar and was intrigued when, on October 1, it won Cambodian Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural Tourism Alliance Awards 2009 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I hadn’t viewed Nest as a serious restaurant previously and I discovered a new addition to the menu upon my return: a steak selection with US prime rib eye at $17; US prime strip loin $16; US prime short rib $16; Australian tenderloin $16; Australian strip loin $15.

Hopes were raised by a little line under the steak listings which said, “Cooked according to your desired temperature.”

Okay, let’s sear that sucker. I opted for top shelf, the US prime beef rib eye, and the cooked steak looked good. I wielded the knife and it cut good. I chewed and it tasted good. It was heaven on a plate.

Let’s skip superfluous description: suffice to say that in the grill stakes, this was the real deal. So how come? I made enquiries and was intrigued to learn the chef responsible was a young Khmer, Sothea Seng.

He started as a kitchen hand in Siem Reap’s Sofitel in 2001, then moved to other top hotels in town, worked the Caribbean, and in 2005 cooked at the Grand Hyatt, Dubai.

I met the chef briefly and we chewed the fat about things pertaining to steak. He said he’d learnt the art of grilling steak during his Dubai sojourn, in the hotel restaurant called Manhattan Grill.

Sothea Seng talked about steak as steak should be talked about. He pondered choosing the best steak from the best supplier, realises the importance of marinating and good salt, and discussed how essential good thawing techniques are in Asia, where most prime Western beef arrives frozen. Good thawing is leaving the meat out overnight; the expediency of microwaving is a crime as it kills the steak, robbing it of flavour.
I liked what this man was saying. I loved what this man was grilling. Enough said really.

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