Set in a stilted wooden Khmer house just off Siem Reap’s unpaved Chocolate Road, Cuisine Wat Damnak does not have a highbrow sense about it. The atmosphere is relaxed and intimate. Refreshingly, guests have the option to dress down or dress up – a rarity among restaurants that recommend its patrons to book as far ahead as three month in advance.
Chef Joannes Riviere, the owner-proprietor of the restaurant, is a constant presence in the dining room. Commanding, yet soft-spoken, he hovers around, asking diners about their meal preferences, giving recommendations and even going as far as taking orders.
In addition to his hands-on approach, Riviere is known for his eye for interpreting Cambodian dishes with modern techniques without sacrificing the balance of flavours that define Khmer cuisine.
“Initially I didn’t set out to set up a restaurant here.
I was working at an NGO, making a Khmer cookbook for a fundraiser when it all began,” he said. “I had to do a lot more research than I had expected, as there were only two or three Khmer cookbooks that can be used as a reference – everything else had been lost in the decades of conflict.”
Cuisine Wat Damnak’s menu changes every week to reflect the produce in season. This is reflective of Riviere’s experiences prior to establishing the restaurant in 2011.
Hailing from the town of Roannes in France’s Loire Valley, he grew up helping his father who worked as a vegetable supplier for the three Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros, which gave him the understanding of the importance of using the best, locally-sourced ingredients.
“My aim is to apply this approach to Cambodian cooking,” said Riviere.
“To let people know that when the best ingredients are used, technique is ultimately secondary.”
Riviere recommends a viognier to go with the entire six-course meal.
It’s a puzzling choice at first, considering pork and duck is part of the line-up.
“This 2015 Black Sheep viognier is dry and very versatile,” he explained.
“I think you’ll find this will complement every bite and help cleanse your palate.”
Shortly after, comes the amuse bouche – chicken curry with pumpkin and baguette. Sweet, salty, and creamy, it floods the palate with the classical balance of taste that defines Southeast Asian cuisine and goes down way too easily with the dry, crisp viognier. The crunchy slice of baguette adds an element of crunch – a nice balance to the thickness of slow-cooked chicken and pumpkin.
Then comes the first course – fermented soy beans with slow roasted pork belly served with fresh, steamed and pickled cabbage salad.
The sweet, pork belly is juxtaposed with the trio of cabbage salad, which not only provides a textural contrast, but also a pleasant, mellow sourness from the pickled cabbage that cuts through the fattiness of the pork belly.
The second course is a ripe and green papaya salad with Mekong langoustine rice-paper rolls, with herbs and tree cucumber sauce.
The skin is filo-thin, allowing the other ingredients to shine through. Cleverly executed and very-well balanced, it is a testament to Riviere’s attention to balance. “It is an everyday Cambodian staple that can be seen everywhere – but you can see how because of the freshness of the ingredients, the langoustine remains the star of the dish,” he said.
“This is an example of what I think Cambodian cuisine should be,” said Riviere. He insists on the usage of ‘Cambodian’ as opposed to ‘New Khmer’ to describe his style.
“Cambodian is a more apt descriptor as there are Cham, Chinese, Khmer and French influences in Cambodian food.”
The third course is a surprise as most diners may not associate duck confit as the base of a palate-cleansing course. Tangy broth is poured on top of the crispy confit that is plated on elephant-ear taro stems and garnished with a Khmer staple – lime and pepper dip. But the surprise comes in the form of the last course, the poached chhlang fish with palm sugar reduction, green mango and peppercorns.
Diners who aren’t too fond of freshwater fish might be worried as it can have a muddy taste. “There’s this misconception – especially among Europeans – that freshwater fish will never taste as good as fish from the ocean,” said Riviere. “That’s not entirely true. With proper preparation and understanding of the fish, it is just as good as seafood.”
This dish is a homage to French influences in Cambodian cuisine, as well as a reminder of what brought French cuisine to the forefront of classical cuisine – the ability to turn lead into gold.
“French preparations are often associated with the use of foie gras, truffles, and what not,” lamented Riviere. “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the art lies within its clever use whatever is available at that time.”
The result? The overall taste is reminiscent of Nobu’s signature cod with black miso – high praise considering that a single serving of Nobu’s morsel costs more than Cuisine Wat Damnak’s six-course offering. “This is why I only use indigenous fish from the Tonle Sap,” said Riviere. “The water is deep and fast-moving, which makes the fish have a cleaner, sweeter taste.”
To conclude the meal, indigenous fruits such as elephant apples and sour mangoes are served with salt and chilli dip.
“The flavours are unique to the region,” said Riviere.
Indeed, the elephant apple, which has the texture and shape of a sapodilla, tastes more like a ripe, blue cheese than an apple. It feels like another nod to Riviere’s French heritage, but with the local touch that has become his signature – the Cambodian equivalent of a cheese platter.
Throughout the courses, Riviere’s use of mastery of local ingredients, attention to the balance of tastes, as well as the structure of the entire meal, is evident. He ensures all the dishes are authentically Cambodian in flavour and as such, Cuisine Wat Damnak is a must-stop for those who want a taste of Cambodian cuisine.
But prospective diners beware: Cuisine Wat Damnak is fully booked until January 10.