Food For Thought

Nicky McGavin

When feeding the conscience we’re often obliged to sacrifice our stomachs — hence the penitent’s attitude of fasting or keeping to an austere diet of black bread and water. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and Siem Reap is proving it by offering serious temptations to thrill body and soul.

There are plenty of NGO restaurants in town, but the best happen to be the ones established to provide hospitality training for disadvantaged young adults. New additions Marum and Haven, plus the old hand Sala Baï, serve top notch nosh that is creative, delicious and, the best sauce of all, doing some good in the world.

Sala Baï celebrated ten years of operation and 1,000 graduations last November. The 100 graduates from the previous year are already safely employed and taking their first steps towards a future of their own design.

The intimate restaurant looking out onto the busy, dusty backpacker street of Taphul Road has a bookish air that presents a pleasing contrast with its surroundings. The menu is short, well thought out and good value, but keep an eye out for the Asian and western set menus that change every two weeks.

The head chef and his deputy, who have both worked in five-star restaurants, let their creativity fly with wonderful results. Whether it’s a beef Carpaccio with a celeriac mousse, or a perfectly-cooked beetroot risotto with goat’s cheese, walnuts and a pork chop, this is food that rivals anything from the finest restaurants, at a fraction of the price. Two courses from the set menu cost $7, while three cost $9.

Meanwhile, Marum has opened its own doors for the first time. Friends International’s third restaurant in Cambodia will be recognisable to fans of Romdeng and Friends The Restaurant in Phnom Penh. The same high design standards define the restaurant, which is modern, with lots of clean lines and strong colours. The menu is creative Cambodian and includes favourites such as a spicy smoked eggplant dip, or the crispy rice noodle and tofu salad with sweet potato and coriander spring rolls, or the lotus root salad with chicken and galangal dressing.

While Friends and Sala Baï jointly have 20 years of experience behind them, Haven was created by a young Swiss couple with little experience, but an awful lot of heart. They have created from scratch a modern restaurant with a refreshing stone garden, and stylish interior.

The menu is as straight-forward and honest as the creators, featuring lots of healthy classics and some good old fashioned comfort food, and loads of options for vegetarians. Their dedication never fails to shine through; whether it’s for the genuinely vegetarian pasta sauces (no rennet) and Asian dishes (no fish sauces, or prahok), or the time they take to listen to their customers. This is not the kind of place you’ll be happy to only visit once.