When you hear that the folks from the popular Il Forno restaurant have opened a resort, the first thing you want to know is, how’s the food?
Okay so maybe that’s just me, but considering the restaurant is one of the town’s favourites, I figure most locals will be curious at least about whether or not the Italian family behind it could hit gold twice.
Navutu Dreams Hotel Resort and Spa opened with a luxe soiree on July 20, and while it will soon welcome a wave of visitors to Temple Town, many Reapers who have their own beds to go to at night will be more interested in the resorts culinary delights.
“We wanted the menu to be different from Il Forno, and once we’d decided that, it wasn’t hard to do,” explains Giovanna Morandi who owns the resort along with sister and brother-in-law, Manfredi De Lucia and Maddalena Morandi.
While Il Forno’s head chef Sopheak has moved over to Navutu, the similarities in the two kitchens end there. Bringing with him an Italian repertoire and an arsenal of kitchen skills, Giovanna says Sopheak has used his knowledge to create Khmer and western menus that use the lightness and simplicity of Il Forno cooking.
Highlights on the Khmer menu include starters of prawn, pineapple and mango cocktail in a mango cup with Jack Daniels sauce, and an Indonesian chicken satay with homemade palm sugar and peanuts.
Standout mains include golden crispy calamari served with vegetable fried rice, steamed bok choi and Sopheak's sweet and sour sauce. Another stunner is grilled chdao fish wrapped in lemongrass and Khmer herbs in a yellow noodles nest.
But of course, being an Italian-run resort, the family has not forgotten its roots. The western menu is stocked with European favourites, among which Giovanna cites parma ham wraps with wild roquette and parmesan shaving.
Another of the resort’s signature dish she cites is Paparo alla Melarancia, which is braised duck breast in oranges with spiced sweet potatoes.
The desserts on the menu that are most likely to catch my attention are chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream, and tropical mango pannacotta.
There is also a pool menu, stocked with delicious-sounding sandwiches and snacks.
Giovanna says that the concept of the restaurant comes from its layout within the resort itself. Positioned between two swimming pools, under a Fijian-inspired thatched roof – Navutu Dreams’ big-sister resort is in Fiji.
“It’s in the architecture,” she explains, “It’s an open space, it opens out to the pools, it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a place to relax in an outdoor dining experience.”
Because the restaurant is situated in a resort rather than a city hotel, Giovanna said they wanted to create an ambiance that welcomed guests to stay on-site in the evening.
“We don’t want people to go out to the temples or sight-seeing 12 hours a day, then head out to Pub Street. This is a resort, people can spend the day by the pool, then have a relaxed dinner.”
Relaxing is definitely a word that comes to mind immediately at Navutu, and this is helped no end by the staff. Dressed in relaxed linen uniforms, they are chatty and personable in a way many five-star hotels don’t allow.
Chiara De Lucia, Manfreddi’s sister who looks after sales and public relations for the resort, says this was their aim when recruiting staff. “We didn’t just want qualifications. We were looking for a human side, people that the guests could communicate with.”
“We want them to feel responsible, to be able to grow into their roles,” explains Giovanna who hopes the uniforms, along with the architecture and vibe of the resort, will imitate the tropical ambience of their Fijian property, “A bit like a barefoot retreat, we want everything to be natural.”
From the staff to the food, Chiara says that they wanted to create something different to what’s available in Siem Reap, and because of this they hope to welcome guests from other hotels and Siem Reap residents.
The resort will have an introductory offer for $25 for an aromatherapy massage, a Khmer set menu lunch and a day at the pool for outside guests. “We want as many people as possible to come, so they can understand the experience,” she explains.
The spa, which will be another draw for Reapers, provides treatment after enticing treatment with the Good Enough To Eat Facial, Navutu Body Scrub and Royal Surrender topping the lust-after list.
So with your appetite whetted, you need your thirst quenched, and yet again the drinks menu is where Navutu and Il Forno are worlds apart. While Il Forno sticks to its Italian wines, Navutu lists 12 new and old world wines along with some of the bubbly stuff too.
But when it comes to bevvies, the cocktail department is where the bar staff really shine. Trained by a pro Spanish cocktail mixer, staff churn out concoctions with a decidedly more European flavour: not a glimmer of palm sugar in sight.
Of course I did my journalistic duty and tried a few. The mango daiquiri, passion fruit and mint caprioska are up there, but the mojito…out of this world.