Khmer dishes served in a refined way

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Slow-cooked honey-barbecued free-range chicken with fire ants and a water mimosa salad with herbs and peanuts. Photo supplied

Slow-cooked honey-barbecued free-range chicken with fire ants as a condiment and water mimosa salad with herbs and peanuts was once served daily at Cuisine Wat Damnak on a tranquil street behind the eponymous Siem Reap pagoda.

Every day of the week, they would serve Mekong langoustine (these langoustine are giant freshwater prawns rather than lobsters) with sour clear curry, pumpkin fruit and leaves, rice paddy herb, tamarind shoots and a cream of rice-field crab soup.

Known for serving Cambodian food with a refined presentation and unique flavours derived from the freshest seasonal produce – with everything on the menu depending on its availability from the traditional markets – Cuisine Wat Damnak has been a star culinary attraction in Siem Reap for years now and listed among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2016.

Sadly, due to the global pandemic and the collapse of international tourism, Cuisine Wat Damnak has had to drastically cut back its hours in Siem Reap.

“International travel deferment has of course severely impacted the restaurant turnover in Siem Reap, and we had to limit our operating hours to weekends only,” remarks Nguon Vengchhay, the restaurant’s specialist in hospitality and restoration development, and also a partner.

As sad as that news is for diners in Siem Reap, the good news for residents of the capital is that the same vibe and flavours will inspire a soon-to-be launched restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh.

Cuisine Wat Damnak is planning on opening its Phnom Penh branch next month located at No 29 Samdech Mongkol Iem (Street 228) in Daun Penh district.

“We were actually thinking of expanding to the capital well before the Covid-19 pandemic”, says Vengchhay.

“However, the crisis happens to give us a further incentive to diversify our range and reach out to the Phnom Penh market with new offers, all within the framework of Cuisine Wat Damnak’s unique culinary style,” says Vengchhay, who – despite his youthful appearance and energy – is a veteran of the hospitality industry with time spent working in Fiji, Macau and other international tourism destinations.

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Nguon Vengchhay is a hospitality expert with years of experience who joined Joannes Riviere as a business partner in 2018. Photo supplied

As one of the few restaurants in the Kingdom selected for the worldwide gourmet ranking La Liste, which is compiled from thousands of media publications, hundreds of guidebooks and millions of online reviews, Cuisine Wat Damnak’s crew have earned an all-star reputation internationally while remaining firmly rooted in Cambodian culinary traditions.

Chef Riviere and his team have delighted enthusiastic patrons from all around the world – as well as their many loyal local customers – with an authentically traditional Cambodian cuisine enhanced with a highbrow touch that results in an elegant presentation for each dish.

Born and raised near a small French town known for its gastronomy, Riviere worked for a restaurant managed by his father before continuing with his culinary career, first in school and then in the US for a few years.

The culinary school graduate first landed in Cambodia in 2003 as a volunteer, teaching the skills of his profession at the French NGO-run Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School in Siem Reap.

During his stay, he was inspired by the rich history, culture and food traditions from Cambodia’s golden age, a simpler time when each day’s fare for every family was made up of herbs and vegetables from their garden along with fish and game from the surrounding fields.

Riviere, who would eventually publish some of the secrets that he learned here as the author of the cookbook “Cambodian Cooking”, opened his restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak in 2011, and he later added Vengchhay as a business partner in 2018.

“The dishes we serve here are seasonally based and cater to the tastes of the local people. Our [chef] has been living in Cambodia for nearly two decades, and he is always thrilled to learn more about the rich seasonal ingredients and local recipes with local meats, vegetables and herbs and combine that with his own creative interpretations,” Vengchhay explains.

According to Vengchhay, what is unique about Cuisine Wat Damnak’s approach is the teamwork. It starts with everyone brainstorming together about creative food ideas – then shopping for seasonal ingredients from the local market as a group – and it continues all the way through to the final preparations in the kitchen before serving each meal.

“At the start of every week, Joannes sits with the eight members of the kitchen team to set up the weekly menus,” explains Vengchhay, who has been a partner at Cuisine Wat Damnak for just a few years but whose association with Riviere goes back to the early 2000s, when they worked together at Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix.

“Each and every team member will suggest some dish he or she would like to include, and then the menu lists are combined together to achieve a well-balanced culinary experience.

“As a finishing touch, Joannes then adds some clever idea for a particular cooking technique or perhaps a dessert combining French and Cambodian inspirations,” Vengchhay says.

Riviere’s innovative menus at Cuisine Wat Damnak’s original location are inspired by the food traditions of Cambodia’s golden age and entirely sourced from nearby farms or foraged wild from around Siem Reap Province: Ambarella and kuy fruits, edible flowers, water lily stems, and freshwater seafood from the Mekong and Tonle Sap.

“In Siem Reap, we mostly use the products from around the land of Angkor. The fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown by local communities.

“However, we have to use imported milk, chocolate, garlic, dried mushrooms and certain kinds of cooking oil. The same practices will also be implemented at our branch in downtown Phnom Penh,” Vengchhay says.

Lunch time offers – particularly attractive for gourmets working or shopping in the area – include the a-la-carte option where patrons can compose their own meal with selections from the two weekly set menus.

“Cuisine Wat Damnak Siem Reap updated its lunch and dinner menus every week based on the availability of fruits, vegetables, herbs, meats and fish.

“For now, we’ll have to wait and see how it works in the capital. For the Phnom Penh branch, which is scheduled to open in early March, the menu will be updated every two weeks depending on the produce available from the local markets in the city,” Vengchhay explains.

The design of the new restaurant includes a private dining room decorated with soothing reminders of the Siem Reap establishment. The rest of the interior design is intended reflect Phnom Penh’s vibrant and modern energy.

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The same vibe and flavours from Siem Reap will inspire the soon-to-be launched operation in downtown Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

That same vibrant energy will be infused into the rest of Phnom Penh’s Cuisine Wat Damnak operations along with the high-quality service they are known for in Siem Reap – such as personalised reservations in which clients can state food allergies or preferences and a highly satisfying wine and spirits selection.

While Cuisine Wat Damnak’s entire team is both exhausted and excited to be opening soon as they finalise preparations for their Phnom Penh branch, Riviere has already started to explore the city and the local markets to understand which products will be available for his kitchen.

“Chef Riviere can speak Khmer fluently so he is able to learn a lot by talking to the local people. He can have a friendly chat with the vendors at the local market when he’s buying ingredients and find out about anything special they might have for sale next week or next month,” Vengchhay says, pointing to photos of the French chef and his team in the grocery section of the iconic Central Market in the heart of the capital.

Cuisine Wat Damnak Phnom Penh has a soft opening scheduled for early March. It is located at No 29 Street 228 in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.

Check out their Facebook page for more information at: https://www.facebook.com/cuisinewatdamnakpp/