Cuisine Wat Damnak is the first and only restaurant in Cambodia to be awarded a sought after place on the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Naturally we wanted to see whether they would live up to this accolade when preparing a vegan version of their usual non-vegan tasting menu.
Chef Joannès Rivière is famed for cooking with local ingredients that many diners who visit the restaurant may have never even heard of. Cambodian cuisine is not as famous as the food enjoyed in neighbouring countries, and so a meal here can be as much of a food adventure or education, as it is a fine-dining extravaganza.
The atmosphere is laid back yet sophisticated with the service being efficient and non-intrusive, allowing you to enjoy the experience at your leisure.
We enjoyed cocktails that were a cut above the usual creations found in Siem Reap; a ‘Pomelo and Ginger Martini’ made with pomelo and ginger infused brandy, vodka and a dash of fresh pineapple setting the tone for our vegan tasting menu.
The Vegan Food:
First to arrive was an amuse bouche of ‘coconut tree heart salad’, flavours of lime, holy basil and crushed peanuts mixing with the crunchy, fibrous shavings palm heart, which had been taken from the inner core of the coconut palm.
It was a delicious insight into how ingredients that we had seen in local markets around town and growing in the local countryside could be transformed into plant-based fine dining creations.
This was followed by a ‘pomelo and water lily stem salad with lemon basil, toasted coconut and deep fried shallot’, which had the most exquisite aroma that won us over even before we tasted it. When we scooped up the first forkful and tasted the flavours of sweet and sharp pomelo contrasted with crispy fried shallots and crunchy water lily stems with aromatic lemon basil running through, we were hooked.
There was nothing not to love about this salad.
Next, ‘braised mushrooms with coconut milk and peanuts, puffed rice, herbs, flowers and local crudités’ arrived at our table, again using ideas from traditional local cuisine to add a fun element to the dish. Puffed rice cakes are a popular snack in Cambodia and paired with creamy mushrooms, laced with very mild chilli flavours and toasty peanuts with a little of the pretty edible flower garnish, made for an interesting dish with good flavours and a whole spectrum of textures.
Next, a change of direction with ‘caramelized palm sugar and star anise braised pumpkin with green mango’. This had all the makings of a great dish with sweet, rich pumpkin and sour green mango in a rich earthy, star anise flavoured broth but it was too sweet for us and we couldn’t help but wonder whether some cubes of firm tofu would have balanced out both the flavours, textures and nutrition of this dish?
The next dish to be served however, was one of our favourites. ‘Crispy rice cake with tiger eggplant and wild mushrooms, fermented soy bean, sesame and shiny cresson’ brought together more Khmer flavours and ingredients in a wonderful plate of food. It felt indulgent with the rich flavour of sesame oil, soft aubergines and salty fermented soy beans complementing the sticky rice cake well and we loved the delicious peppery flavours.
Finally onto dessert; ‘tofu gelato with chocolate rice praline, caramelized palm sugar syrup’. The gelato was light and refreshing and the chocolate rice was full of intensive bitter cocoa flavours which worked well with the palm sugar syrup. The puffed rice on top was good but we’d have preferred to have only had it once during the meal, either in this course as part of dessert or in the savoury section of the menu.
The last part of our meal turned out to be quite memorable, not only with ourselves but also with neighbouring diners on other tables. The palate cleanser of ‘local, seasonal fruits with chilli and lime salt’ not only showcased some interesting local fruits but took us on a sensational journey of taste.
Enjoyed from right to left, the ‘coconut apple’ was soft, sweet and like a natural marshmallow, the ‘moon fruit’ was dry and perfumed, the ‘tree cucumber was intensely sour and the ‘longkong’ was reminiscent of sweet grapefruit and grapes. Eaten together with a dab of a kaffir lime and chilli infused salt and sugar mix, the flavours of the fruits changed dramatically. We know we weren’t the only ones who couldn’t stop eating that spicy, salty, sugary combination.
Delicious, clever and highly addictive.
The Vegan Food Quest Verdict:
Make a reservation at Cuisine Wat Damnak for an excellent and delicious education in Khmer cuisine. Try new ingredients and enjoy being introduced to new flavour combinations as you work your way through their vegan tasting menu.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Wat Damnak Village
Telephone: +855 (0)77 347 762
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 1830 – 2130