Arriving at Sovanna we did at 7pm on a Sunday evening, we were lucky to tag a table only about a hundred tables away from the best seats amongt the sprawl of luminous pink or blue tables and chairs looking out onto a quiet side road just off Sihanouk Blvd.
Yet sitting on vinyl and chrome collapsible wedding chairs, in a packed oblong room way back in the overheated rear of the restaurant with just a woeful side fan for ventilation, my Khmer partner assured me that this lively restaurant had a good reputation.
Plastic chopsticks at the ready, we had quite a wait for our food – ordered by my companion using her top, inside track local gastronomic knowledge – while waiters in jaunty miniature red bow ties bustled past me, wafting plates of grilled cuttlefish, whole fried catfish and earthy bowls of tripe over our table.
Eventually, after what seemed like an hour but was probably only about fifty eight and a half minutes, our starters arrived. Griddled beef, charred on the outside, yet sweet, red and bloody inside and sitting next to the usual plastic plate of salad on ice. My partner prepared a dipping bowl of lime and fresh ground black pepper and then she did the same for herself but adding a dollop of the ubiquitous prohok and a fistful of chopped peanuts. The beef was so good that, like Oliver Twist, I asked if I could have some more, please.
After that came the plea, a cold salad with citrus marinated fish – raw like sushi – hiding beneath a complex tangle including star anise, chilli, garlic, shallots, the brightest of bright green leaves, and chi ma-hao, a triangular leaf which my Khmer dining partner translated as “fish cheek” – it smells like mint and lemongrass. All were sitting in a shallow pool of something looking vaguely familiar. I dipped a spoon into the puddle, raised a portion to my nose, and sniffed. Prohok? That ‘only in Cambodia’ pungent and fermented mudfish, rice and salt sludge known as prahok? I glanced at my companion who was licking her lips knowingly. Prohok – the arch enemy of barang taste buds – it was. And yet it tasted rather good in the plea.
Finally, we had soup. As we all know, there are analogous dishes in Khmer and Thai cuisines, and some misguided souls feel that Tom Yum Soup is a Thai dish. Not so, says my Khmer partner, and who am I to argue? The Tom Yum at Sovanna is not especially spicy, but has just the right sourness. So we all began fishing for the shrimp in the steamboat and this being a self service affair, my Khmer companion plucked the fattest, juiciest shrimps.
Sovanna didn’t seem like somewhere for the macho Khmer elite to arrive flanked by armored elephants, nor somewhere for idiotic drunken motodops. In short, it caters for those in the middle – the expanding Khmer middle class (mostly this means whole families and even sometimes pairs of Khmer women diners) having a jolly old time, and that’s probably why it’s doing so well.
And as newly appointed 440 restaurant critic (Lord Playboy having apparently quit this website in order to spend more time with his money), there wasn’t much chance of expense account fiddling as the bill for three diners (little brother being down from Battambang) only came to $15, including a jug of Anchor Beer and a plate of pineapple. Bumper portions. Top notch food. Tiny tabs. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, why Sovanna is packed out every night. You could get out of here, without ordering carefully, for under £10 a head including plenty of booze. Good value.
Sovanna Restaurant (Khmer). St 21, Phnom Penh, adjacent to Hun Sen Park