For those unfamiliar with it, Cambodian (or Khmer) food is in many ways similar to other Southeast Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese. But unlike Thai food, Khmer dishes are by and large not weighed down by sometimes oppressive richness and sweetness – and like Vietnamese, the cooking shows some evidence of colonial French influence. Our first experience with Khmer cooking was in Cambodia itself, during our honeymoon. After spending some time in Thailand, the relative simplicity and lightness we encountered was very refreshing, and we vowed to find a place closer to home where we could revisit these delights. We learned about the Elephant Walk because they created the only English-language Cambodian cookbook we could find, and making a few of its recipes yielded tasty results.
So one commuter train and a T ride later, we arrived at the Elephant Walk. The airy interior reminded us very much of the colonial-style architecture of the hotel we stayed at in Siem Reap, with its high ceilings and white walls. The only thing missing was Angkor beer on the menu (not an especially good beer by US standards, but tremendously refreshing, especially when you're only paying $1.50 a mug for it).
The Elephant Walk's menu is a bit unusual in that it features three distinct categories of dishes: "traditional Cambodian", which try to adhere to classic preparations; "original Cambodian", using traditional recipes as a starting point for further exploration; and "original French", which really is just straight-up French. If you don't know what you want, this makes for a lot to sift through, but given our single-minded focus on once again tasting Khmer cuisine, we new what to go for.
A great feature of the menu is several multi-course tasting options. If I recall correctly, $35 gets you four courses, or 3 for $30. The only drawback is that some dishes on the menu aren't available as part of the tasting option.
Lauren and our two friends both did a tasting. Everyone else started with the Rouleaux, which are basically spring rolls filled with ground pork, beanthread noodles and crushed peanuts. Smiles all around for these and the tasty dipping sauce that came alongside.
I had the Soupe Phnom-Penh, named for the country's capital. It's a noodle soup, with sliced roasted pork and garnishes of scallion and cilantro. The most striking part of it was the broth: it was almost disarmingly subtle, not at all the kind of flavor you get in a typical stock. Though it was not bold in flavor, it did not lack in depth, and it instantly put me in the mind of the broth in a congee-like porridge I had for breakfast in Cambodia one morning.
A special chilled soup ordered by one of our friends sounded intriguing – made with avocado and orange. It turned out to be a little ... strange, and not quite what we were imagining. An inventive effort nonetheless.
For our main courses, Lauren and I both went with classics. She got the loc lac, which really could not be more simple – cubes of beef marinated in mushroom soy sauce and sautéed. Here's where the daring simplicity of Khmer cuisine comes out, because all that's needed is some lettuce and a squeeze of lime to make this a memorable dish.
I had the considerably more complicated Amok Royal. Amok is essentially a seafood curry made with coconut milk and, according to the menu, "complex Khmer seasonings". Served as a neat little package inside a banana leaf, it wasn't "saucy" at all like a typical curry, but rather the seafood, coconut and spices merged into a heady parcel of flaky, subtly sweet, and wonderfully seasoned fish. I regret not being able to finish it all, or at the very least having no way to take the rest home (thanks to our fridge-less hotel rooms!).
Our friends both had a preparation of beef short ribs, which they reported as very well cooked. As part of their tasting, one had dessert from the totally Western sweets menu. I think it was a pretty standard chocolate torte.
As we ran off to catch our trains back to Salem, it was clear that everyone was satisfied. The only troubling thing is how far we'd have to go to find decent Cambodian food again. Sure, Boston is closer than Phnom-Penh, but getting delivery from either place is downright impractical. We got a tip once that you can barge in on Khmer family picnics on Sundays down at FDR Park and buy a treat or two – stay tuned for a report from this culinary adventure, if we work up the nerve to try it!