I’m sure you know the feeling. It doesn’t matter how many great food choices you have at your fingertips – and, let’s face it, Phnom Penh probably has more good value quality food choices than any other city of a similar size – there are still times when only a damn good curry will do. I guess it’s part of my British heritage where chicken tikka masala has replaced fish and chips as the national dish, but I’m sure it’s the same with other nationalities too.
A couple of good curries, some nan, a side dish or two and, of course, tons of pickles and chutneys all washed down by a couple of beers. It’s a perfect meal.
However, despite its growing reputation as a foodie town, I have to admit I’ve been disappointed by the Phnom Penh restaurants I’ve tried so far. They are ok – they don’t serve bad food, but there isn’t one that has stuck out from all the rest as being my go to Indian place. None of them have tempted me back more than once or twice.
A friend and I were deciding where to go for a curry and after discussing and dismissing the usual names, he suggested Shiva Shakti, a place I’d never heard of before. I’m glad he did. I liked it, and I’ll be back. Again and again.
I’m tempted to introduce Shiva Shakti as a great new addition to the Indian restaurant scene, but that’s not the case, despite me thinking I had a pretty good handle on the Indian restaurant scene. Evidently it’s been around for over 15 years at an old location (the site of Spice Garden, its sister restaurant at Independent Monument) and was once regularly frequented by local neighbor HE. What’s good for HE is good enough for me, although I find it hard to imagine him wandering over the park to before sitting down to a prawn madras and a pint.
What is new about Shiva Shakti, though, is its new location at the very end of Street 63, a couple of blocks across Mao Tse Tung Boulevard. It’s not the most convenient location – and frankly, the owners need to do a better job telling people where they are – but the trip is worth it. It’s a great venue and damn good food. I can forgive them for being a bit off the beaten track.
The first thing to say about Shiva Shakti is that it’s a very nice venue, with a great ambience. One of the thing that frustrates me about most of the better known places in town is that the they are all a bit . . . well . . a bit spartan at best, and shabby at worst. They’re the kind of venues that you want to get in, get fed, and get out as soon as possible. They’re not places to linger and talk with friends over a nice meal – crap furniture, fluorescent lighting and bored staff playing Angry Birds is NOT what I’m looking for in a good restaurant.
Shiva Shakti is nothing like that. Its new location is very very nice, what looks like a restored shophouse with many original features, including the French colonial style tiles in the main dining area. What really makes Shiva Shakti stand out though is the attention paid to the decorations; ancient electric fans, some superb original Indian cabinets, beautiful Indian sculptures and paintings and – best of all – soft and subtle lighting. It creates a great first impression and that’s just what a good restaurant should do. Mount Everest and Taste Budz, please take note.
But it’s all about the food at the end of the day, isn’t it?
And Shiva Shakti doesn’t disappoint. It describes its menu as classical indian moghul cuisine,but most of the dishes on the extensive (148 item) menu wouldn’t look out of place at your typical Brick Lane or Bradford curry house. Only they are very much better here, or at least the ones I sampled are.
You can tell a good indian restaurant by the quality of its samosas. Frankly, those at Shiva Shakti are pretty much the best I have had at any Indian restaurant anywhere in the world. Instead of being dense, greasy and filling, these were light, fragrant and bursting with subtly flavoured vegetables, the perfect start to a good Indian feast. We ordered a second serving, they were so good. From memory the were around $4 a very generous portion.
We also ordered something from the Tandoor, a chicken garlic kebab, which turned out to be a beautifully tender piece of chicken breast spiced with garlic and roasted over a charcoal fire and served with mixed salad, min and sesame chutneys. Again, it was very very good.
Best of all were the curries. I know purists will say that a real Indian wouldn’t eat a curry as we know it. I couldn’t give a toss. I love the curries we get served in western Indian restaurants, authentic or not. We ordered a chicken vindaloo for a bit of heat, and a daal makhani. Both were very good, very generous in terms of quantity, and both packed a good punch. I love vindaloos, and this didn’t let me down. Like all good vindaloos it isn’t meant to be about the heat; it’s more about the tart vinegar flavor. Let’s not mince words; Shiva Shakti does a fucking good Vindaloo.
We mopped all this up with a couple of garlic naans, again nice and light with no oily residue, and a couple of beers.
Shiva Shakti is not the cheapest option for Indian food in Phnom Penh, but it is very good value. It is not a riverside curry house. The curries are probably a dollar or two more than you would pay in many other places around town, but they are worth it. I will definitely be back.
A final thought. They say the way to judge a good Indian restaurant is to count the number of Indians eating there. In Shiva Shakti’s case, the other tables eating when I was there were predominantly Indian, which has to be a good sign.
All in all, Shiva Shakti is good place to go. No, it’s a very good place to go. A damn fined Indian restaurant. Their new location isn’t ideal, but it’s not too far a trek if you’re in the mood for a really good Indian meal. In fact, the location could well work in their favour if they market themselves as a cut above other Indian venues and position themselves as a ‘destination’ restaurant, somewhere to go for a special night out, rather than randomly dropping in for a quick feed as you wander between bars on the riverside.