Cuisine Wat Damnak – Modern Cambodian food by Chef Joannes Riviere
Cambodia’s food scene has been slower off the mark. But now, thanks to the diligence of a handful of chefs, Cambodian food is starting to make something of a comeback. Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap is the first Cambodian restaurant to make it onto a prestigious international restaurant list, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, where it was named Best Restaurant in Cambodia.
This is fantastic news for Cambodia. The award puts Siem Reap on the global culinary map and it brings a positive impact on tourism. Joannès Rivière, owner of Siem Reap’s Cuisine Wat Damnak, came from the Loire Valley. He studied cooking in France before moving to the United States to work as a pastry chef. In 2003 he moved to Cambodia to be a volunteer cookery teacher at the NGO-run Sala Bai Hotel School. From there he went on to become the executive chef at the Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap before opening his own restaurant in 2011. We took a tuk-tuk to Cuisine Wat Damnak. I feel it’s not easy to get to the restaurant, but people kept telling me that I had to go, that the food is amazing. I am glad we made it on the last night of our trip.
Cuisine Wat Damnak serves two set menus each night, priced at US$19 for five courses and US$26 for six. Their dégustation menus change on a weekly basis to maximise the use of seasonal fruits, vegetables and fish, some of which are only available for a three week period every year. Some items are difficult if not impossible to source through the local market channels, but they go the extra mile and hunt them out so that it can be incorporated into our menus.
The food we enjoyed here allowed me to consider Cambodian food in a way I never had before. You won’t find the traditional Khmer food like amok. Rather, we were treated to unique dishes that we have never heard before. Maam, which is fermented fish paste cooked in banana leaf, is quite interesting in flavor. It was salty and a bit sour, and I liked its meatiness with minced pork and egg, herbs, flower and local crudités. Another dish that is worth the rave is Stir Fried Boneless Frog Legs with Angkor stout reduction, lotus roots, stem and seeds. The bold stout reduction adds flavours to the plate of vegetables.
The Tonlé Sap croaker fish in light curry broth with toasted rice and moringa was another highlight. The flesh is sweet and firm, and contrasts nicely with the fresh coconut tree heart. We ended the night with steamed dark chocolate cake, pandan whipped cream and rice praline. The decadent chocolate cake is so moist and spongey. I like the fragrant and airy pandan whipped cream that complemented it.
Cuisine Wat Damnak has entirely transformed native dishes seen on the streets into haute cuisine. I like how Chef Rivière has creatively used the ingredients in his cooking. It’s not easy to get a table here so make sure you make your reservation early.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Address: Between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School, Wat Damnak village, Sala Kamreuk Commune, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Tel: +855 (0) 6396 5491
Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 6.30pm till 9.30pm