It’s a constant refrain on both Khmer440 and pretty much any guidebook you care to mention: Khmer food really isn’t up to much, especially when compared to that of its neighbours in Thailand and Vietnam. It’s a terrible admission but in the two years or more I’ve been living in Phnom Penh, I’ve never bothered trying local cuisine. Why bother when there is so much good and very affordable French, Italian, Chinese, Indian, American, Thai, Mexican food available everywhere, and when the nearest attempt to go local is a trip to my local Pho café round the corner?
After living in Thailand for so many years when eating Thai food on the streets, in shophouse cafes and in five star restaurants was the norm, my reluctance was difficult to explain. Perhaps I bought into the whole ‘Cambodian food is crap’ thing too easily and too lazily.
All this changed recently when I got the chance to eat at Malis on Norodom, just south of Independence Monument. OK, OK, I know what you’re going to say: Malis is a high end restaurant and hardly constitutes ‘going native’ in the same way as eating 2000 riel borbor from a street vendor, or chowing down on a plate of rice and gristle at Orussey Market, but I do so unapologetically. If you’re going to sample French food, you might as well start at L’Atelier or Septime in Paris; similarly if you’re after a great introduction to Khmer food, you might as well start at the top with Malis.
It was a very good experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to ease their way into proper Khmer cooking.
My partner and I ate there on a Friday night, a good choice because it was buzzing without being boisterous. I took her there because she hasn’t tried Khmer food either, and I had heard it was a nice place to impress someone. It was interesting to see the range of people eating. At one table near us a group of young professional Khmers were celebrating someone’s birthday. Behind us were a group of six young western women on a girl’s night out: I suspect the cocktail bars around St 308 took a pounding later on. Scattered here and there were couples – western couples, mixed couples and khmer couples.
It’s easy to see why. Malis is a very nice place to take a partner, and perfect for a romantic dinner. Located in what was presumably a villa but hidden behind a large ochre wall protecting you from the rush hour traffic, it’s a ridiculously peaceful setting with courtyard dining featuring tables scattered around a fish pond. You can eat inside if you wish, but as it was one of those warm evenings just before the rainy seasons start, we thought we would sit outside.
We ordered a couple of strong cocktails to start, excellent value at (I think) $4 each. In what bizarre world are high-end cocktails in a five star restaurant only $4 each? What nonsense is this? We didn’t complain and enjoyed them while ordering dinner.
The menu at Malis is vast and for a beginner it can be difficult to know where to start. In the end we took a relatively safe route and ordered things that seemed familiar or that I’d heard of before: some local clams in hot basil sauce and an interesting scallop dish where the meat is served on half shells with green capcisum and kampon green peppers. Both were very very good, especially the clams with were juicy, meaty and just a tad spicy. More on that later.
I’m told the classic Khmer dish is Fish Amok. I’ve seen it on riverside menu boards, but had never tried it. My partner ordered it and it came perfectly bundled up in three banana leave-wrapped portions. The fish was delicate and the amok sauce was sweet and tasty. I could have done with a bit more kick to it, but I believe that is the way they are meant to be served. My taste buds have been destroyed by my love affair with Thai chillis.
We also ordered a Khmer curry, in this case a beautiful Saraman beef curry so well cooked that the beef – presumably stripped from the stringy carcasses of those hopeless creatures causing accidents on Cambodian roads – was melt in the mouth tender. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended, and very good portion size; enough to know you’ve eaten it, not too much to make you not want to explore something else.
And we did – dessert. I love crème brulee. Give me a crème brulee and you have a friend for life. Malis gave me a sweet pumpkin crème brulee and I can see Malis and I are going to be very close friends for a long time. I will keep coming back simply to have the crème brulee, it was that good. A nice crispy top, and a lovely creamy pumpkin filling. It was as good as it was unexpected.
One of the things that had previously put me off trying Malis was a notion that it was expensive. Let’s put that nonsense to bed right now. For a top quality restaurant selling quality food with great service in a nice setting it is very well priced indeed. Nothing we ordered was more than $6-$8 each, which is ridiculously good value in anyone’s book. The crème brulee – did I mention the crème brulee already – was $3. Where else in the world are you going to get a world class quality dessert with an interesting twist for $3?
Yes there were more expensive dishes. I recall seeing a Kampot pepper crab dish that nudged over double figures, and I think it’s possible to order fresh cooked lobster at ‘market prices’ and one day I’m sure I will head back and try them. But most of the dishes on Malis’ extensive menu are priced in single digits, and are excellent value for money. I think our entire bill came to around $70, but that included cocktails and a bottle of wine.
What did I like about Malis? I liked the ambience, the prices, the setting, the service and I was impressed with the food. What would I change? Well, I had to nitpick I prefer spicy to non-spicy, but that’s not a gripe with Malis; it’s a reflection of Khmer food. But I will definitely go back, especially when I have visitors to Cambodia who want to the sample local food in a great environment. It’s the perfect entertainment spot.
And the next day I’ll take them to Orussey Market for some rice and gristle to show them the other side of Khmer cooking.