XXL Restaurant: Phnom PenhJanuary 11, 2006
European and Asian cuisine; heavy Belgian (French) influence.
227 Sisowath Quay (the riverfront)
Tel: 012 350 831 or 023 990 691
VISA and MasterCard accepted at 3% surcharge
The air was a little frosty as we swayed into this establishment, in a way that had nothing to do with the air-conditioning and everything to do with the well dressed ladles and gentlespoons that peered long and coldly at the pair of slightly inebriated gentlemen giggling loudly as we entered the library like silence of the restaurant. Fearless though was the eight year old girl dining next to them, as she charged up and down the restaurant skipping and laughing to herself.
Knowing that tact is an alien concept at the best of times with this particular friend of mine, I steered us towards a corner table away from the other diners. Just in time as it turned out as he started commenting, slightly loudly, that if he had not heard such good things about the food here, he would never have been tempted to stay in such a sterile looking place.
As a chubby little Khmer waitress giggled up to our table smiling, bless her, we were informed that as we were dining on New Years Day we each would receive a complimentary Kir Royale – sparkling wine with creme de cassis, ordinarily US$4:50.
The wine list was defiantly prejudiced; it was 90% French with one lonely Spaniard and nothing at all from the New World. The lower end wines, US$13 to US$20, being mere table wines or minor Appellation Controle areas. Rather than resorting to the high end Pommerol or Saint Estephe I opted for what I considered a very good wine at only a moderately silly price; a Faustino 1, Gran Reserva Rioja 1995 at US$37. Which I required the waitress to open straight away knowing that it would need at least half an hour, preferably a full hour, to breathe before drinking. The thing about Rioja is the, ordinary, crianza, Rioja must be at least two years old before sale; Reserva Rioja, is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year, followed by two years aging in the bottle before sale; however, a Rioja Gran Reserva must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years, followed by three more years in bottle before being released. It is not every year that you can make a Gran Reserva, it depends on the quality of the harvest; 1995 however was a very good year in Rioja.
After the waitress had removed our menus, she returned with a platter of rustic bread, of a flattish oval shape, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, along with some unsalted (why do people do that?) butter.
While my friend and I were catching up, we hardly had time to discuss the increased fish catch in 2005 before our starters had turned up.
My Croquette de Fromage, the three cubes of cheese croquettes (US$4), were somewhat disappointing, being breaded, deep fried pieces of brie, reminiscent of a British country pub starter circa the 1990s, although they were very prettily presented with a fair sized ‘side’ salad and jug of French dressing on sweet looking square blue plates.
My fellow trencherman, Mr Riel, had selected the páte de foies de volainlle, a hearty homemade chicken liver pate (US$4) rather than the ordinary terrine maison, house pate, which I eyed enviously as it was placed in front of him; a four inch by three inch slab, three-quarter of an inch thick and as dense as an Australian scrumhalf. Adorning the plate was a good portion of salad, dill pickles and silverskin pickled onions. Initially I could get no report or comment from my companion as to the quality of the pate, other than ”mmm, oh yeah, mmm, mmm, here try some of this, mmm,” well, it would have been churlish to have said no. It tasted every bit as good as it looked; curse my Cambodia induced cheese craving.
After a reasonable pause, the waitress came over to ask if we had finished and if it was okay to bring our next course; bring on, bring on, we instructed.
My Porcelet sauce vigneronne, piglet stewed in red wine (US$9), was a decent sized portion, a Belgian sized portion, not a fiddly little French ponce sized portion. I probed a rather large looking piece of piglet, in preparation for cutting it in half, and it just flaked apart, as it if was fish rather than pork, so tender was it that I hardly needed to masticate. The flavours just burst out in my mouth, the sauce was as rich and thick as a Phnom Penh based Landcruiser repairman. The red wine sauce was silky, but not so powerful as to mask the other flavours; the piglet having been stewed with mushrooms, carrots, celery and black olives as well. As well as finishing off the entire plateful, a second rustic loaf was called for during this course, mostly to make sure than none of this delectable dish was wasted.
The potato gratin dauphinois that accompanied the stew made such an agreeable and tasty change I was half considering ordering another portion out of sheer hedonism.
The filet de boeuf Ardennaise, lardon, champignons, echalotes, beef fillet, bacon, mushrooms, shallots (US$10) that was sat opposite me looked equally hearty and good. Cooked to a perfect medium – the waitress having double checked how much cooking it required – it also carved with ease. The Ardennaise sauce so good that at one point I thought I was going to have to restrain my gastronomic cohort from actually licking the plate clean, thankfully that problem was solved by the fact that he had also opted for the potato gratin dauphinois and he was busy using them to clean up the plate.
On to the wine; a medium ruby in colour, bright and with a good aroma of blackcurrant backed by that classic ‘oak and vanilla’ bouquet that tells you that this is a Rioja. Having had plenty of time to breathe, the heavy tannins in this Gran Reserva had had enough time to cease being so prevalent and for the flavour of the fruits to move up to the fore to balance this delectable wine, the flavours remaining consistent into a very long, clean finish It has been a long time since I have had wine of this calibre in Cambodia, probably not since Le Petit Bordeaux closed its doors last year.
Despite my objections, or more importantly, my seasonally burgeoning trousers objections, it seemed that dessert was compulsory.
Having contemplated the menu for as long as possible, to allow for ay least some digestion of the previous delights to have taken place, I selected the profiteroles maison, house profiteroles (US$4). Not five minutes later the waitress appeared again, bearing a plate with a pair of profiteroles, sliced horizontally and generously stuffed with vanilla ice cream, making them into little cylindrical towers, topped off with whipped cream and plenty of chocolate sauce, ooo, they were good, ooo I am glad that there was only two of them, ooo I needed to lay down soon, ooo I wish I had not had a dozen barbequed sparrows for lunch. At this point I was wondering how much it was for a room for the night, just to abstain from the long journey home.
Opposite to my groaning bulk, my provincial living friend was tucking into crepes au choc chaud, chocolate pancakes (US$4), were a pair of folded pancakes, topped with flaked almonds and served with a jug of warm chocolate sauce. I can only assume that they were good, as they vanished in just a few moments.
All in all, a most pleasurable gastronomic experience. If you wish for some truly excellent food, and are happy enough to ignore the stale ambiance and slightly slipshod service, I can only recommend that you go – but take a rich friend to pay for you.
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