For the best of seven years, I had the extreme pleasure of eating extraordinary Vietnamese food most everyday, prepared by a cook (who happened to be my wife) whose knowledge of her homeland’s gastronomy was encyclopedic and her culinary skills unmatched by anyone I’ve ever known with the possible exception of my grandmother.
I thus gained a deep appreciation for the cuisine in all its regional variations, and perhaps also became a somewhat harsh critic of Vietnamese food done poorly; nevertheless, I have enjoyed myriad wonderful Vietnamese meals both inside and outside that country. It was certainly not hard to find wonderful Vietnamese food of every kind in southern California with its large Vietnamese population.
When I first came to Phnom Penh, it was my expectation that considering the large Viet community here, good Vietnamese food would not be hard to find. While I have not dedicated myself single-mindedly to that task, my experiences leading up to my visit to Magnolia suggested I was wrong in my expectations, that for whatever reasons, despite a Vietnamese population that numbers in at least the tens of thousands, really good Vietnamese food is indeed hard to find in Phnom Penh.
And so there is Magnolia (now there are two), which in its street 51 location is set in a lovely building which in addition to copious inside seating offers charming patio and balcony seating. The outside space is the nicest; the interior being rather surprisingly spartan (and not in a hip modern way).
The menu at Magnolia is as intimidating as any in Phnom Penh, offering as it does some 204 items (all reasonably priced) in every imaginable category, plus specials, plus a roll-your-own section. My experience in Phnom Penh has been that a restaurant that offers this many dishes will not have all them available, so rather than having to go through a long ordering exercise my lunch partner and I ordered off the standard menu items which we figured would likely be available and indeed that was not a problem.
The first dish to arrive was Bun Rieu, a northern Viet noodle soup whose broth is tomato based and emboldened typically by crushed crab shells, sometimes also using annato to render the broth the color of dried blood. Our wait staff (who was Khmer) arrived not long after we ordered holding a bowl for presentation. It was a noodle soup but did not resemble any Bun Rieu I have seen. When she noticed I looked quizzical and was not reaching for the bowl I said “Bun Rieu?” She did not respond, so thinking perhaps my northern intonation confused her I switched region, “Excuse me what is this? We ordered the Bun Rieu.” Another wait staff joined to observe. “This is the Bun Rieu,” she said.
It was in fact a rather plain pork noodle soup (the pork was good, the broth OK if a little thin), there were no signs of tomato in whole or in part, certainly no crushed crab shells though there was some mam tom-like sauce on the side. Ok, well the likely explanation is that the staff didn’t know what Bun Rieu is and got the order wrong. It happens, though not usually with a popular dish. Or perhaps it was an extremely unusual take-off on a traditional dish. If so, I have to gauge it a not successful one.
Next to arrive was a fulsome plate of Goi Cuon: fresh spring rolls with pork, shrimp and rice. They were beautifully presented and the large portion had us thinking we had over-ordered. I watched my friend’s face as he chowed down on the first roll and his brow furrowed as he shook his head and said, “what’s wrong with this?” I had the same feeling as I bit into mine.
The interior was pasty and the rice paper wrapping poorly prepared so it had the consistency of the paper you’d do your homework on rather than something you’d want to eat. “I think this may be the worst Goi Cuon I’ve ever had” I said. We each struggled to finish one roll. My friend suggested I save the leftovers for my staff. I felt somewhat guilty about the prospect knowing that there’s a lady who sells Goi Cuon on the street near my place which would offer a far better gastronomic experience.
Banh Khot is a wonderful dish which comes from Vung Tau, the port and beach resort not far from Saigon. Bite-sized egg and flour cakes are fried in hot oil to a crisp and topped with small fresh shrimp; the whole business often wrapped in lettuce leaves for dipping in a dedicated variety of nuoc cham. I go to Vung Tau often and consume unseemly amounts of Banh Khot when I do. I was delighted to see that Magnolia offers a number of Banh Khot variations.
We ordered the standard variety. Upon arrival I could see immediately that something was amiss and one bite confirmed that this was a misguided effort. The fried cake, rather than being at all crispy was soft and turned to a very unpalatable goo after spending a few seconds in the mouth. We didn’t want to finish this either. Things were not going well.
Cha Gio, southern fried spring rolls, now arrived nicely plated with a carved carrot centerpiece. The rolls, however, were not the thin rice paper variety which typifies authentic Vietnamese Cha Gio, but rather the small, more thickly pastried variety which is more what you’d find in a Chinese-Vietnamese shop, at every Khmer wedding or in the frozen food section of your local international market in the states. Now, I like these just fine if not as much as the thin rice paper variety, and these were passable if uninteresting.
The next batter to the plate was a lotus stalk salad with shrimp. My friend and I enjoy a similar Khmer version of this dish in Kien Svay and it’s delicious. To our tremendous relief, this was not terrible. Not that it was tremendous but it was good enough to finish the dish. We did wonder why they went to the effort to split the shrimp but then only half heartedly de-vein them, but things were looking up.
Magnolia had one more shot at making an impression on these two wearied diners and it was beef wrapped in mustard leaf which appears on Magnolia’s list of special dishes. Like everything else it was nicely presented. It was accompanied by a curiously green dipping sauce (avocado?). It was very good. Not just very good for Magnolia but very good for anywhere. It had nice texture, strong but sufficiently complex flavoring and most surprisingly a very strong kick from both mustard and chili. It had taken a lot of time but we finally had a winner.
So we left on a high note, but on balance it was obviously a disappointing experience. Somewhere on that menu of 204 dishes there are to be found, I am guessing, some very fine dishes. Perhaps after a few visits we could come up with a meal or two of truly outstanding preparations. Perhaps, but I left thinking I sure wish I was eating in Vung Tau. And certain I was not going to offer the leftovers to my staff.
Words and pictures by Jeff Mudrick
Phone 012 529 977
No. 55, Pasteur (St. 51), corner of St. 242