Flavoursome flair – Cuisine Wat Damnak REVIEW
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School, Wat Damnak village, Sala Kamreuk Commune, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Executive Chef: Joannès Rivière
Cuisine: Cambodian with French techniques
It takes a dedicated foodie-come-food-writer to travel 7200km to experience a chef’s menu, but this restaurant was first to be booked on my recent Thai-Khmer travels. This unassuming restaurant can be found in a traditional wooden house in one of the many unlit streets in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Anointed as one of the best restaurants in Asia, this French take on Khmer cuisine is both challenging and intriguing.
If you have read any of Foodie Mookie’s reviews, you will know that there is a passionate advocacy of sustainable cuisine and chefs that look local first. Cuisine Wat Damnak is the essence of this philosophy harnessing the unique flavours of Cambodia and applying the world class cooking techniques of France. It results in a beautiful marriage of flavour and flair.
Chef and owner, Joannès Rivière is native to France’s Loire region, a stunning gastronomic mecca. Therefore it is no surprise that his upbringing was filled with home grown produce and days in his father’s restaurant. A passion for farm to table cuisine has followed him through his culinary training in France and the US. The move to Cambodia may seem like an odd choice, but Siem Reap is incredibly international in its dining scene and plays home to some amazing talent including The FCC’s Florian Lindener and Abacus Cafe’s Pascal Schmit. Chef Rivière is a celebrity in this temple-tourist destination and rightly so.
His immersion into Cambodian cuisine and culture included time as a volunteer cooking teacher for the Sala Bai Hotel School, as executive chef for the stunning Hotel de la paix (now Park Hyatt) and as author of Cambodian Cooking. His next logical step was to open Cuisine at Damnak with his wife (Carole Salmon).
All of this was running through my head as I slid in to my TukTuk and motored away down the streets of Siem Reap on a warm and balmy Cambodian night. Lost in my thoughts I was jolted back to reality with a ‘here here’ from my driver. I was the first to arrive this evening and Carole was there to greet me and guide me to my table. This was the first night of their new seasonal menu and the first day back from a holiday break, so the atmosphere was bubbling, frenetic and a little frazzled; but as is Khmer tourist culture, was accommodating and friendly.
The menu was two simple choices. Firstly choose between 5 courses ($24USD) or 6 courses ($28USD) and secondly choose between Tasting Menu 1 or Tasting Menu 2. Being a little adventurous I chose 6 courses and Tasting Menu 2, mainly because it started with ‘crispy pork tongue confit salad, cucumber, peanuts and spicy chili dressing‘.
The crispy pork tongue was everything I hoped for with a crisp, caramelised crust and tender tongue. The fresh salad of cucumber and peanuts was a perfect complement to the richness of the dish. We were off to a cracking start. The ‘Koh Kong seared scallops’ quickly followed which had a delicious chinese sourness paired with sweet seared-rare scallops.
The seafood continued with a fish filet with a butter-crispy skin and risotto-like creamy amaranth underneath. The inclusion of lemon basil added a freshness to the richness. The main (and largest) dish – ‘Quail and Cambodian green giant eggplant in game style, wild mangosteen sour leaves and mushrooms’ – was decidedly decadent compared to the preceding dishes. Once again the local leaves added additional zing to this heavy and filling dish. Chef Rivière’s French cooking skills spoke volumes with every bite.
This French influence continued with the penultimate dish ‘Chilled Battambang grape soup with Beaujolais wine, whipped sour cream and cashew nut tuile‘. This tasted like a home made dessert at a French family gathering. The whipped sour cream held up against the fragrant red wine and the malty flavour of the tuile lingered long after the last mouthful.
In a surprising moment, Chef Rivière appeared at my table to present the final plate of local Cambodian fruits. This was a lovely moment for a foodie, who has admired this chef’s work from afar (and now intimately near). He was gracious, respectful and excused himself quickly back to the kitchen to service his now full restaurant. It was a moment of stillness, appreciation and one that memorably completed the meal.
My albeit brief time at this humble destination was magical and as I slid back into my tuktuk, waved goodbye to Carole, my mind started to wander. It wandered back to Chef Rivière’s Cambodian immersion. I had a feeling that this would not be the last time I spent getting lost in his beautiful farm-fusion cuisine.