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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Siem Reap: Haven Training Restaurant, where helping taste good.

Fine dining in Siem Reap was a pleasant experience with local ingredients working their way to excite my palate.  But on my 3rd day, I wanted to fulfil a more noble cause by eating charitably.  I dined at Haven Training Restaurant, a social enterprise aimed at helping the vulnerable by teaching them an important life skill.  Note that Haven is neither religious or governmental.

As important as the background maybe, quality food is all that matters when you are in the industry.  So lets look at what we had that day:

Salt & Pepper Calamari 

This humble dish needs no introduction.  Haven aced it beyond the scoreboard in my opinion.  Crisp, lightly battered and served crisp, these moreish bite sized appetiser was simply but every bit satisfying.  The serve of tartare on the size was well-made with a balance struck between the tartness of the pickles and the creaminess of the mayonnaise.

Fried Corn
The fried corn is NOT a popcorn but rather a traditional Khmer appetiser .  Scrapped of the corn cob, the kernels were fried upon order.  It carried a unique flavour where it was a tad salty, garlicky, mildly spicy and herbed thanks to the generous amounts of chopped coriander.  It was really nice at first but the large serve was hard to finish as the kernels felt a tad oily towards the end!

Chicken Cordon Bleu
Like the calamari, I suspect that the Cordon Bleu is another classic Western dish introduced by the owners.  While the best Cordon Bleu probably hails from Switzerland, I was actually pretty impressed with the one served at Haven Training Restaurant.  It was faultless to the extend that even the chicken breast was juicy!   On the inside was a generous slice of ham and a decent kick of cheese!  Not the cheesiest but it was substantial.  If you are lazy like me and swap out the occasional Friday night chicken Parmi for a Cordon Bleu, you will be pretty impressed.  The chips on the side, not impressive at all.  Definitely needs to be crispier!

Khmer Lok Lak
JH’s main was the Khmer Lok Lak after a practice of due diligence to ensure that only the best dishes were ordered.  Surprise surprise.  Another Pad Krapow look-alike.  As I have preached several times in the last two posts, the Khmer palate is very SUBTLE.  So do not expect heavy lashing of fish sauce, sweet soy and lemon. The Khmer Lok Lak was no exception.  It was a little underwhelming but every bit delicious.  Something mom would cook at home because an overdose in seasoning is unhealthy! 

Banana Cake
A surprising appetiser that was quite nice actually.  A littler drier and denser than a typical banana cake but it was flavoursome enough to tempt.  I imagine having it with coconut ice cream would make it even better :P!

Charity is a very sellable idea in this modern day and if you are not convinced, come in without a booking at dinner and be turned away in an instant.  Lunch on the other hand is not so stringent.  And do not get me wrong, I am not belittling the idea of charity and honestly I loved the idea of helping.  As Haven's tagline suggests, “where helping taste good”.  That is because for most parts of the meal, it really did!  But was this meal really a $30 dollar meal including 2 coconuts?  Hmm I wonder.

Haven training kitchen is ranked no.3 on Trip Advisor and despite open voting, I am not sure whether the voters were voting by their mouths or by their intentions.  Needless to say if a person ever asked me whether I would return to Haven?  More yes than no for sure.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Siem Reap: A quality lunch at Mie Cafe!

The 5 AM Angkor sunrise tour in Siem Reap is a real tourist cliche.  But with nothing else planned and the promise of a spectacular view, I decided to trade good breakfast and some much needed sleep for a temple tour.  Something laughable. The private driver costs $35 for the day and the temple 1 day pass is $20 per person.  Highly recommended for parties wanting a quick tour as group tours are very draggy!
Cruising through the spectacular sights of Angkor Wat, the Bayon Temple and Angkor Thom showed me how these ancient superstructures heralded a preservation initiative by the Khmer government.  But scenic views does not keep a hungry stomach filled.  Not to mention the pack breakfast of cold bread reminded me of why I eat oatmeal instead.

After the temple tour, the private guide will always try to bring you to a restaurant which covers his meal and gives him commission. Fortunately, I found a place before coming and booked a table.  It was Mie Cafe which is located half-way between the temple roads and the city centre.  Just perfect as we were on our way home!  Mie Cafe is one of the many French restaurants with a Khmer inspired menu is Khmer graced with a touch of French.  As always, local produce gets first priority.  The tasting menu is $24 per person plus 7% tax.

To start was the Carpaccio of fresh snake head fish fillet cooked in fresh citrus juice with Cambodian spices, grapefruit and hazelnut oil dressing served with poached egg tempura.
This was a lovely salad!  Firstly, the ceviche was well-coated in a zesty citrus dressing.  Each mouthful of the salad was a bliss, thanks to the generous amount of mint, basil and chillies that made it extremely aromatic.  The oozy yolk from the tempura as well as the dollops of homemade mayonnaise brought the dish together very very nicely.  

(Samlor Pror herh) Crab meat emulsion with green peas, porhok fish and vegetable consommé, wild herb.
The purpose of this course was clear.  The consommé surrounding the barely marinated ingredients intended to rid the palate off the flavours from the rich starter earlier.  This course was hardly impressive but it served its purpose.  It left a clean aftertaste almost as though one had drank a glass of chilled unsweetened tea.  Neat.

Grilled prawn with Amok butter, roasted somanea seed, eggplant with coconut milk and dry cure ham.
When my 3rd course arrived at the table, I was shocked by the quantity on the plate.  But hey, its about the quality and not quantity right? haha.  If you manage to get past that stage, you will appreciate how the prawn was cooked to perfection. The buttery smell made me crave for more instantly!  Pair the prawn with the eggplant stewed with the cured ham and you are certain to get a curry like flavour.  This dish was small but absolutely deadly.

Fried pork with oven roasted giant eggplant, bell pepper and wild mushroom
This was the last savoury course and it looked typically Chinese.  But the immense refinement in cooking technique resulted in an unparalled eggplant dish.  Moist flavoursome mince and melt in your mouth aubergine was all the hype here.  There was some chilli in this dish but extremely mild.  Served with a bowl of rice, this was a dish to remember.  It was really delicious!

Hot and creamy chocolate fondant, homemade mango passion fruit sauce, served with vanilla ice-cream
Fresh out of the oven, I was not convinced by the sloppy presentation consisting of passionfruit and chocolate sauce.  But then, I cut the fondant into half.
And nothing else in the world mattered anymore.  It was simply delicious.  Rich, dark and well-toned sweetness.  This fondant was just spot on. The fruit and mildly acidic passion fruit help add dimension to the dessert and the whole thing just really worked.  If you ever get burnt by the super hot fondant, the ice cream helps :)!

Mie Cafe was on my itinerary as an option, and not an essential.  But after an afternoon dining on meals where everything was so good, I think future itineraries will have to be changed.  The food at Mie Cafe went well beyond our expectations.  From the zesty salad course to the skimpy dish of grilled prawn with butter and the rich chocolate fondant, it was just heaven on earth.  It was no wonder that the trainer at Haven Dining ranks Mie Cafe amongst his top dining destination.  A restaurant worth re-visiting!


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Siem Reap : Is Cuisine Wat Damnak one of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants?

This year, St. Pellegrino recognised Cuisine Wat Damnak’s credentials by awarding it Asia’s 50th best restaurant.  Coming to Siem Reap, I knew I simply had to go. Cuisine Wat Damnak is located just minutes from my hotel the Royal Crown Hotel in Siem Reap which means I could walk to this little super star.   The 8 minute trek was short but not without its own excitement with the grounds unpaved and unchained stray dogs barking ferociously at us.  Lightning and thunder in the background did not help either.  But I guess its these little experiences that you bring home from holidays that spark good conversations.
Cuisine Wat Damnak is helmed by Joannes Riviere and re-creates the usual Khmer cuisine using locally sourced produce.  Every evening there are two menus; one of which incorporates a mixture of seafood and poultry or an all seafood affair.  It costs $24 for 4 courses and $28 for 5 courses. JH and I each decided to each try one of their 6 course tasting menu.  

Amuse Bouche - Wat Damnak’s squid ceviche.
Tender squid, mildly acidic and slightly sweet. It was a pretty good start but I tend to like my ceviche a little colder compared to the conventional serving temperature (i.e room temperature) as the chill helps keep the dish refreshing.

Menu 1, Course 1 - Caramelised palm sugar braised beef, pickled green papaya and rice noodles 
The flavours here are reminiscence of a Thai salad.  The core flavours are very similar to the Amuse Bouche but a much sweetened beef rillette made it yums!

Menu 2, Course 1 - Tamarind and chilli marinated fruit salad, boneless frog leg and herbs
A lovely stir-fry with tender frog flesh.  Decent flavours but I could  not really tell the jackfruit in the salad haha.  I think it was a younger type.

Menu 1, Course 2 - Prawn Ansam cake frilled in banana leaf, peanut sauce and cucumber salad
A unique dish that I truly enjoyed.  Plump juicy prawns wrapped in glutinous rice and grilled over fire on a banana leaf.  A mild fragrance swept across the plate as it arrived.  I was sold.  Sadly, the same cannot be said about the cucumber salad that was mildly bitter.  I would have preferred perhaps another form of salad or none at all on the side.

Menu 2, Course 2 - Steamed Maam with minced pork and egg, herbs, flower and local crudités
I liked this dish of JH’s but the presentation felt botchy and disconnected.  Served with a side of rice, I could not mix the dish up seamlessly as it should be.  Taste wise, it was creamy and all-round quite good.  But it was not a stellar dish.

Menu 1, Course 3 - Smoked fish and pork ribs soup, mushrooms, loofah and young taro roots
Smoked fish were super crispy and pork ribs were cooked till fall-off-the-bone tender.  Its soup base was potently salty which explains the presence of the rice to even the whole dish out.  Great textures of crisp fish and tender pork ribs paired well with the slightly springy mushrooms and tender taro roots.

Menu 2, Course 3 - Tonle Sap croaker fish sour soup with water lily stem an d cabbed leaves and pounded feroniella
The croaker fish soup is an instance where a simple fish is made outstanding.  The broth was slightly underwhelming as the flavours were not quite as pronounced as the curry I had later that evening.  It was OK over all.  Loved the way the fish carried a mild body of smokiness with it.

Menu 1, Course 4 - Sunday fish spicy curry with hot basil, pumpkin and dumpling.
The perfection of the slowly grilled crispy skin fish wins me over anything else.  My expectation of river fish is fishy but Cuisine Wat Damnak proved me wrong.  The fish was cooked so well it had mildly crisp skin with that whiff of smokiness just serenading my nostrils.  Spicy curry fish sauce was creamy and pleasant but not at all spicy.  Eat mouth were layers of flavours that were simply delicious.

Menu 2, Course 4 - Black sticky rice porridge with Mekong langoustine, glazed turnip, jasmine flower and sausage
The langoustine looked gracious sitting on a bed of slow cooked black rice porridge graced by sprinkling of little edible flowers and diced sausages.  The stock on which the langoustine’s sat on felt very French.  I do not have the correct words for it unfortunately!   It was an OK dish that lack a little flavour.  The porridge felt like a pairing too starchy for the final savoury course.  Even more so when rice was served at Courses 2 and 3.  A little too much rice!

Menu 1, Course 5 - Phnom Kulen vanilla panna cotta, cashew crumble, fresh mango and mango sorbet
This has got to be one of the best Panna Cotta I have ever had. It is simple but often made with imperfections.  Cuisine Wat Damnak did well with a silky smooth custard.  It brought it further by pairing the Panna Cotta with a cashew crumble which gave the dessert some nuttiness.  To finish, the fruity note of mango throughout the dessert resulted in a decadent dessert that leaves the palate refreshed.  I doubt anyone would have felt otherwise!

Menu 2, Course 5 - Steamed dark chocolate cake, rice praline and Pandan whipped cream.
The French and their love of rich chocolate desserts has been very well-documented in cook books and shows. But I never knew that steamed cake could be so decadently chocolatey and moist at the same time .  The cake here was soft and spongey with the little pieces of popped rice completing the dish with a crunch.  I unfortunately did not take a liking towards the fragrant Pandan whipped cream.  I wanted Pandan Ice Cream :)!  It would have been much better.  Just a personal preference though.

Cuisine Wat Damnak has literally came from nowhere and made a name for itself on the food Atlas.  From an even bigger picture perspective, it probably helped Siem Reap standout on the world map too.  For a country that lives on a mere $1-2 a day, this $30 meal is by no means a cheap affair.  But was it good?  It definitely was.  The flavours throughout the meal was very crisp.  The finish was clean and there were not lingering/overpowering flavours from the usual suspects of fine dining such as foie gras, sea urchin, and other fatty meats.  Progression was apparent as I went from start to end which is a nice thing to have. But to complement absolute perfection is a claim too farfetched. Execution at Cuisine Wat Damnak was a bit of a hit and a miss depending on which set menu you got.  Whilst I was absolutely satisfied with the poultry and seafood set (Menu 1), the same cannot be said for JH who found the all-seafood menu (Menu 2) a little mundane.  In saying that, it was not all doom and gloom but could definitely have been better.  Do I think Cuisine Wat Damnak deserves a ranking in Asia?  Definitely so!  Room for improvements?  Plenty.  That is what rank 1-49 is for!