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Khmer Chameleon - A new wave of youg chefs is bringing Phnom Penh to the world's attention

KHMER CHAMELEON

Words: Claire Knox    Photography: Georgia Kuhn

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8 From streetside wok-tossed Cambodian classics to stylish French restaurants, Phnom Penh’s culinary scene is ever-changing. And now a wave of talented young chefs is bringing it to the world’s attention

Phnom Penh’s sleek epicurean revival is underway and helping me discover it is foodie John Neutze, Director of Sales and Marketing for Raffles Hotel Le Royal. Cambodia spent 90 years as a French Protectorate and the French legacy is of keen interest to Neutze. We’ve spent the morning in the leafy courtyard of Belgian café The Shop, a 10-minute drive from the French Quarter on boutique-filled Street 240, devouring cafés au lait and buttery pastries, and we’ve just left Raffles Le Royal’s famed Elephant Bar, an intriguing historical piece designed by French architect Ernest Hébrard. The hotel’s grand, cool halls have been open to guests since 1929. The writer André Malraux spent time here, as did Charlie Chaplin. But it was post independence in 1953 that things really took off. In 1967, Jacqueline Kennedy enjoyed Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s jazz performances while sipping champagne cocktails.

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Left to right:Phnom Penh mixes ancient and modern; hustle and bustle at Phsar Thmei (Central Market); freshly cooked street food

We climb into a remork – the Cambodian term for a tuk-tuk – to the heart of the old French Quarter, barely a five-minute drive away. Soon we are ensconced on the terrace of the elegant wine bar Chez Rina, taking in the street scenes. Just a year old, the bar is inside the old Hôtel Manolis and with its art-deco signage, century-old tiles and soaring ceilings, it has become one of Neutze’s favourites.

“On the surface, Phnom Penh still has a frontier feel, which gives it charm, but I’ve discovered some of the coolest venues I’ve ever been to. There’s no hub or district that you’ll find them in – they are scattered throughout the city, down little laneways. Here in Phnom Penh there is understated style,” Neutze says.

Phnom Penh still has a frontier feel, which gives it charm

The French effect still ripples when it comes to food – crusty French baguettes and breads are sold at local markets and on almost every street corner. Acclaimed fine-dining restaurant Van’s, which is inside the impeccably restored former Indochina Bank by the old, ochre-hued Post Office in the same neighbourhood as Chez Rina, is the perfect haunt for nostalgic travellers and locals alike. Topaz, which has its own moody piano bar, serves up top-drawer pan-fried foie gras. A few blocks south you find one of my host’s favourite French bistros – Chez Gaston, which specialises in slow-cooked beef cheeks and buttery, garlicky escargots. The menu is scrawled on a chalkboard and even local tuk-tuk drivers get lost trying to find the place.

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Left to right:John Neutze; director of sales and marketing at Raffles Hotel Le Royal; traditional Khmer cuisine with a twist; the team at The Common Tiger

Neutze tells me that what surprised him most about the city was the advent of hip new eateries popping up on almost a weekly basis. A new hole-in-the-wall café, Kettlebell, has just opened a few days earlier, doling out full-bodied cortados (espressos cut with a dash of warm milk). Then there’s the Samai Distillery, a handcrafted rum distillery hidden down a narrow street. It’s an airy, warehouse-chic space with concrete floors and polished wood. Contemporary art fills the walls, designer light fittings dangle from the roof and floor-to-ceiling windows look out to rum barrels and 19th-century copper stills imported from Spain.

Our tuk-tuk ferries us further south, down the tree-lined thoroughfare Sihanouk Boulevard and past the superb lotus-shaped Independence Monument, one of revered 1960s’ architect Vann Molyvann’s most famous works. Cambodian food has lived in the shadow of the dominant food culture of its Thai and Vietnamese neighbours, yet it’s one of the world’s most subtle and fresh cuisines. Stir-fries, soups and salads accompany piquant pastes, complex herbs and edible flowers. It’s a song of textures and balance: sweet and bitter, salty and sour, raw and cooked.

It’s a song of textures and balance: sweet and bitter, salty and sour, raw and cooked

One of the most vocal champions of Cambodian cuisine is South African Timothy Bruyns. The tattooed and dapper philosophy student-turned-chef arrived in Phnom Penh to clunk pots and pans and conceptualise a cutting-edge menu with fellow chef Neil Wager at private island resort Song Saa. A year ago, he and girlfriend Christina opened The Common Tiger in the expat enclave of Boeung Keng Kang, with a molecular gastronomy-inspired menu that experiments with Khmer flavours. The leafy 1960s villa that is its home, reportedly the work of Mr Molyvann himself, is a minimalist composition of sleek angles and bare white walls. Custom-made Danish-style furniture continues the theme. “You feel like you are inside someone’s house,” Neutze reflects. We choose to eat outside under a huge mango tree. Our first sampler – tuna carpaccio and banana stems and hearts flecked with wild herbs, lily flowers, salted turnip, hot basil and slivers of shaved, house-cured Sihanoukville tuna – resembles a pretty watercolour of mauves, lilacs, greens and shimmering silvers.

Left to right:lively bars and eateries in Bassac Lane; fresh patisserie and Belgian chocolate at The Shop; the elegant; art-deco Chez Rina

In the steamy mornings, the pavement fringing Phnom Penh’s dome-shaped, yellow Phsar Thmei (Central Market) comes alive with people snacking, just as it has done since 1937. Piping-hotnom kruok – steamed coconut and rice cakes dipped in fish sauce – and beef skewers marinated inkreung (lemongrass paste) are served hot off the grill on plastic plates. Smiling local women ladle out bowls ofnom banh chok, a curry noodle soup.

It’s a food lover’s paradise and I’m glad Neutze has enlisted Gisela Salazar Golding to help us navigate it. She’s the effervescent chef and part owner at acclaimed Latin-Asian fusion eatery Tepui, a restaurant inside Chinese House, one of the loveliest structures in the city. She’s been visiting this market for four years now and sources the lion’s share of Tepui’s ingredients here. She picks up piles of local scallops – at Tepui these are flash fried and served over rice noodles with a coconut seafood cream, or perhaps served ceviche, marinated in lime juice.Bonito – a small white tuna fish – is also on her menu, pan-seared with a sesame crust, bok choi and pickled ginger.

In the steamy mornings, the pavement fringing Phnom Penh’s dome-shaped Central Market comes alive with people snacking

But I need to save room for the next stop, Romdeng, a training restaurant for former street kids run by the NGO Mith Samlanh. The colonial villa garden setting is a lovely reprieve from the market cacophony, and our waiter Sopheak – who cooked for the royal family several years back after befriending celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay – is soon piling our table high with plates of pomelo and shrimp salad with mint and toasted coconut, and Kampot pepper crab tossed in garlic and chilli, plus fried tarantula, an unnerving Khmer delicacy.

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