Phnom Penh Restaurant Reviews: Tonle Bassac BuffetNovember 2, 2011
Is Gluttony such a bad sin? Really, it’s a far cry from Envy and Wrath. It could easily have been covered under Greed, don’t know why it got its own mention in the Big Seven. Could they not come up with anything else, like talking about your allergies in public, or wearing Uggs? Pretty Slothful if you ask me. Anyway, I prefer the five Precepts of Buddhism: No Drinking, Lying, Stealing, Killing or Sexual Misconduct. If you can make it to noon without breaking all of these you’re doing pretty well. However, if you need to explore the limits of Gluttony, there is no better place than an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Aside from the luxury hotels about town, Tonle Bassac is one of the biggest and best buffet options, and at $13/head, way easier on the wallet. Upon entering the fancy, two-story establishment on Mao Tse Tung, you will be ushered through a labyrinth of tables full of families and large groups engaging in Gluttony with Lustful abandon. Since there is much to cover, I will dispense with the niceties of describing the décor (clean, pretty wood and iron furniture, pleasant din), and staff (numerous, helpful, friendly), and get right down to it.
Fresh, Grilled Seafood and Meat is the hands-down winner; you could stay in this section all night and do quite well. Shrimp, squid, crabs, and langoustines are grilled right in front of you.
These disappear fast so be prepared to wait with a throng of people hovering over the grill. The shrimp – either skewered and grilled or boiled were great and fresh. The langoustines were the best: giant, luscious, meaty. Has anyone ever gotten meat out of a crab? I think I did once in the 80s. Time consuming and labor intensive, I gave up after wrestling with just one but got some good claw meat. There’s also excellent chicken, pork and beef kebabs.
Beijing Duck Pancakes are showcased in their own station, presided over by a cleaver-wielding chef and duck carcass, in case you had doubts about the source meat. These are tender, rich, meaty, and rolled in fresh rice flour crepes. There’s no plum sauce for dipping, but try the sauce from the Special Ingredient Chicken (not a bad dish in its own right).
The hot dish section offers a nice mix of Chinese and Khmer cuisine, with a few attempts at American food. The Panfried Shrimp Meatball, Steamed Fish in Soya Sauce, Scallop and Bean Curd, Mussels in Tamarind Sauce, and Fried Rice with Grape were all great. Fried Ouk Liang Liang in coconut cream – I think Heather’s mom used to make these for Girl Scout meetings, if you don’t mind slimy snail-like things, these were delicious. Smaller fried curried crab with garlic and pepper was also excellent, with glass noodles and scrambled egg.
There is a large station dedicated to Vietnamese specialties. Fresh and fried Springrolls, two types of Ban Xiao with all the fixins, soups and salads. A yellow flying saucer of egg batter with boiled pork caught my attention, but didn’t win me over. Little dim sum-style dishes – shrimp and pork wrapped in rice paper round out the offerings.
They make a valiant effort with their sushi, but it doesn’t live up. Maki rolls and nigiri use regular, non-sushi rice so they fell apart quickly.
Avoid the raw mussels at all costs; raw oysters were slightly better. Salmon and fluke sashimi were fresh enough, with a nice, buttery texture. The mixed seafood salad, however, was great, the shrimp and squid were fresh, mixed with julienned carrots, cucumbers, onion and cilantro, the flavor was bright and tangy, and had a hint of spice but not overpowering.
Most of the attempted Western dishes were lackluster. Backed Pork Rib with ABC Sauce, Fried Shrimp, and Fried Duck with Peas were all tough and had heavy, cloying sauces. Fried Calf Rib USA Serve in Stew Pan was oddly jelly-like. Nom Pao Sak Siv looked like a steamed pork bun, but didn’t taste as good. Crab soup – eh; Deep Fried Corn – does what it says on the box, nothing special.
In Other News
There was a wide range of soups – Thai Tom Yam, Khmer Curry, some Chinese and Vietnamese soups along with rolls and breadsticks. The salad bar is extensive and fresh. There’s a Chinese station making unidentifiable fried things, and more soup. A fresh green papaya salad station looked tempting, but I didn’t venture.
Vegetarians – You will have to make the most out of the salad bar, which disappears quickly. There’s balsamic pasta here, and kim chi. The Mixed Chinese Vegetables in the Hot Section – broccoli, mushrooms, and bok choi are nice and garlicky, and the only hot food you will get. Enjoy with some steamed white rice. Otherwise fruit and desserts are your only other option.
Desserts – Fabulous fresh fruit, a few cakey things and brownies, excellent flan. The rest were Khmer desserts that, as my friend said, are ok but I’m not running out to Lucky to buy more.
Then there’s the mass of oddly shaped and colored jellied things in metal tureens that look like fish eggs and shiny dice. Downstairs, hiding in a back corner, is an ice cream station (follow any child striding purposefully across the room and you’ll be lead straight there) with Taro and Coconut ice cream, both great, and frozen bananas. Note! Ripe papaya is a wonderful digestion aid, so make sure to grab a few pieces, if you can fit them in.
Overall, it’s a ton of food, most of it good, for an extremely reasonable price. Don’t make the amateur’s mistake of filling up on bread, rice and noodles. There’s a station offering fried noodles with various meats and vegetables that you choose, an upscale version of what’s on every street corner in the city. I’m sure it’s great but why bother. Come early, like 6ish, since things tend to run out and staff starts cleaning up around 8:30 or 9pm. Drinks will cost extra but not much (a large bottle of water is $2), and they have beer, wine and a full bar. Have some Pride in your inner Glutton and enjoy.
Tonle Bassac Buffet Restaurant, No. 177 Mao Tse Tung Boulevard (cross street 163),