April 11, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Angkor Cambodian Bistro: Taming of the Kuythiew

 This wonderfully complex and luscious seafood dish wrapped in a banana leaf is why you’re here.
This wonderfully complex and luscious seafood dish wrapped in a banana leaf is why you’re here.

          It was always about the rediscovered temples of Angkor Wat. Nobody went to Cambodia to explore the food. Then Le Cirque regained its four star rating from Ruth Reichl in October 1997. The kitchen crew hoisted chef Sottha Khunn to their shoulders in exhilaration over the triumph.  A few years later, the shy, soft-spoken chef shocked everyone by retiring.  “I have spent 25 years of my life in kitchens,” he said. “I never before have time of my own…I have no family. No children. I sacrificed everything in life.”  He would give himself a sabbatical, he said, take time off to decide what to do next.

 
Images on the menu at Angkor Cambodian Bistro evoke memories of the Siem Reap temples.

          The Cambodian government had returned the Khunn family’s vacation home in Siem Reap. His brother had opened a guesthouse there. Sottha was going home. My guy Steven and I were planning a South Asian run-around. We reserved an air-conditioned room with a bath in the small villa. The week we planned to stay stretched into ten days.

 
My guy, photographer Steven Richter, spotted this statue with painted lips in an Angkor temple.

          Every morning, after our western breakfast, Sottha accompanied his mother to the market to buy whatever she chose for the daily improvisation: giant prawns, live frogs, hearts of palm, rice birds (the morning’s catch still wiggling).  Then, his mother and sister-in-law, sitting on the ground outside the kitchen, peeled and chopped. Twice a day at the lace-draped table -- Sottha sitting beside his mother -- we had four-course meals, always beginning with soup. Every day a different soup: exotic, fragrant, full of hidden explosions of chile, the sweetness of coconut, crab claws or turtle meat afloat.

 
Owners Minh and Mandy Li Truong have created a charming outpost of Cambodian food on East 64th.

          Those memories come back as friends and I, spurred by Ligaya Mishan’s rave in the Times, agree to meet at Angkor Cambodian Bistro. Mishan had dutifully documented the luxury of the new venture by the chef Minh Truong – who fled Cambodia with his family as a teenager – and his Chinese wife, Mandy. But as Mishan often finds taste thrills on an unpadded bench or one of four tall seats at a counter in a closet-size shop or a grocery store, I am not expecting serious adornment. 

 
The big stone Buddha faces the door and takes your measure as you enter Angkor Cambodian Bistro.

          The giant Buddha head on guard, just inside the door after I climb the few steps under a protective canvas, is a surprise. It’s huge with the classic drooping earlobes. And there’s a large gold leaf alongside. On this far edge of East 64th Street, I don’t expect filigree-screen dividers, the shelf of votives underneath a large framed painting or, behind me, a silver Buddha seated in the lotus position with a reverential vase of greenery. Clearly, not instant décor from a catalogue, but treasures.

 
I especially like the seated Buddha on a small table behind where the four of us are stationed.

          Rich Sander, our ethno junkie pal, has been before, so even I am willing to let him order what the four of us should eat. Since the house is still waiting for its liquor license, there will be no cocktails. There’s some muttering about that, till all settle for glasses of the $30 Montepulciano. It turns out to be fruity and easy -- simple enough for the exotica soon to be delivered to our table.

 
Knobby little rounds of shrimp, pork and crab are sautéed and meant to dip in sweet chile sauce.

          At first, everything arrives in multiples, a series of croquettes and patties lined up on banana leaves, garnished with cucumber ovals or a thicket of carrot string and occasionally a small orchid.  Pork, shrimp and crab, formed into bumpy little balls, then fried, and meant to dunk in sweet chile sauce are delicious.


Curry-flavored cakes of fish, shrimp and string beans are not rubbery as they can be in Thai cooking.

          Given that Cambodia is flanked by Vietnam and Thailand, it’s not surprising to find an Angkor take on summer rolls wrapped in rice paper, or steamed pork and shrimp dumplings in crimped egg roll sheets with homemade soy sauce.


Khmer-style barbecue pork hash is served with a sticky rice dipping sauce. 

          But Nem Nuong, Khmer-style barbecue pork hash with a sticky rice dipping sauce, is not at all like the tight little meat rolls of Hanoi. And deep-fried Khmer fish cakes – curry-flavored fish, shrimp and green beans – are not rubbery like their Thai cousins. These have a feverish kick worthy of the red star on the menu.


Chunks of barbecue-sauce-painted beef Loc Lac are amazingly tender and full of flavor.

          Alas, some of the starred items are not especially spicy. The hot heads at our table are disappointed, but not all my tasting pals are chile freaks. The Truongs are cautious to a flaw, tending to tame the heat for fear of offending. So that red star is a false alarm on tonight’s Loc Lac -- wondrously moist stir-fried beef painted with barbecue sauce – just a little bit fatty. Truong also does not use prahok, Cambodia’s signature fish paste, not to distress the local bourgeoisie.    

 
Break off a piece of this stuffed Banh Chao pancake and wrap it in a leaf with condiments.

          Siem Reap-style Banh Chao crepe, folded around ground shrimp and chicken with onion and bean sprouts, reminds me of the thin Vietnamese omelette-like pancakes we used to buy on the street in Hanoi. Here I break off a fourth of the half-moon to wrap in a leaf -- dribbling fish sauce and crushed peanuts on top to make a delicious mess.

 
The house version of kuythiew noodles is disappointingly bland this particular evening.

          Of course, we must have a noodle dish. The ethno junkie chooses Kuythiew, billed as a “famous Cambodia noodle dish.” With its familiar toss of shrimp, scallion egg, dried bean curd, sprouts and crushed peanuts, it has a Pad Thai soul.

 
Shrimp, crab, black fungus, glass noodle and more are wrapped inside this crisp fried spring roll.

          Everyone’s favorite is the Baked Amok. Prawns and scallops in a red curry sauce are piled into a ground fish mousse-like paste in a banana leaf, topped with coconut cream, then baked in its ceramic dish. There are vegetables and white rice in small plates tucked alongside in the flat basket that holds everything. Spoon the soupy casserole atop rice. So rich, so lush.

 
Mandy, our Chinese host, rules the dining room. Tonight she sends out mango and sticky rice as a gift.

          Mandy treats us to mango with sticky rice and pumpkin custard.  Then she distributes very small glass cups of jasmine tea.

          I put together five friends two Saturday nights later, eager to taste more. A young woman in the long skirt and short jacket Cambodian women wear is stationed at the entrance behind the Buddha. I’m not sure why. Perhaps for dramatic effect. A large group is celebrating around a central table. Mandy warns us that the kitchen may be slow bringing our dinner. I ask if we can order two $8 bowls of seafood lemongrass soup and have it served in five cups. She agrees to bring cups so we can ration it out ourselves.

 
It’s not the dazzling soup of Sottha Khunn’s mother, but it’s an impressive bowl for just $8.

          I sense her stress. But never mind. Our crew is pleased with the shrimp and crabmeat roll, cleanly fried and sliced into six pieces for sharing. Not everyone can have a shrimp or half a scallop in his or her soup, but there are calamari rings for all in the spicy tamarind broth, tangy and complex. I’m not sure why the fried calamari has to be so tasteless and pale. No passion there, I guess.

 
Dry chile tamarind sauce flavored deep fried slices of roasted duck. 

          Nyoam, rice vermicelli with ground fish in red curry sauce, lacks oomph, too. Another red star wipeout.  Neither the barbecued chicken nor the roast duck are as rewarding as thin slices of deep-fried tamarind duck with pineapple. That disappears quickly. I like the shrimp and avocado curry more than the yellow curry with pumpkin, long beans and eggplant in coconut milk.

 
The meat is exceptional in this beef salad as is the tangy spice mix on every slice.

          As before, the Baked Amok is the evening’s triumph. But I’m not too full to notice that the grilled beef salad soaked in a peppery lime juice is far superior to the wimpy beef salads on most Asian menus. Here, you can taste the exotic ground rubble of spice on each tender slice.

          And yes, we did have one or two longish waits for our supper. Mandy did not offer dessert, but she did remember the farewell jasmine tea.  I think she served it herself. 

 

          It’s not important that the best dishes of Angkor Cambodian Bistro, as good as they are, do not live up to memories of the Khunn guesthouse in Siem Reap. There is a Cambodian food truck and the Num Pang sandwich shops; but for now, there is only one more-or-less Cambodian kitchen in New York where Minh Truong cooks the food his mother taught him. He will adjust the heat so even your most faint-hearted pals will feel safe. And you can ask him to turn up the jets.

 
Mandy Li Tuong takes our order on a demanding Saturday evening.

408 East 64th Street between First and York avenues. 212 758 2111. Monday dinner only 5 to 11 pm. Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 am to 3 pm, dinner 4:30 to 10:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday lunch noon to 3:30 pm. Dinner 4:30 to 10:30 pm.

***

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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