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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!