In March 2015, Cuisine Wat Damnak, in Siem Reap, Cambodia was named S. Pellegrino Best Restaurant in Cambodia, and one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Thanks to owner and Chef Joannès Rivière, the Cambodian table has hit the big time.
The restaurant is also a personal favorite. Early on a muggy April Saturday, just after the restaurant’s opening in 2011, the chef planted me on the back of his motorcycle for a round of local farmers’ markets. Haggling and joking with vendors in fluent Khmer, Joannès Rivière introduced me to the foragers and fishermen who supply his kitchen, and to Cambodian grandmothers who have shared their cooking secrets with him. It was a lesson in local sourcing, from a master of the art.
Chef Rivière has a passion for authentic local flavors and uses only fresh, seasonal produce. Ingredients such as the pungent prahok can intimidate Westerners, but non-traditional combinations of indigenous ingredients win converts when prepared by this French chef on a mission. “I wanted to create a restaurant centering on quality Cambodian food,” Chef Rivière told me. He insisted that Cambodian includes Chinese, Cham Muslim and Vietnamese foods, as well as Khmer. All are represented on his plates.
Feroniella and kuy fruit lend citrusy, sour notes to his creations; sweet-fleshed fish from the Mekong and Tonlé Sap lake marry with Western influences to a sublime result; edible Tonkan flowers and crisped ginger add balance and bite. Tiny Mekong sole and puffer fish together with needle fish atop a quenelle flavored with sour leaf, chili and garlic is a combination made in heaven–and on earth, by the clever hands of Chef Joannès Rivière. Chocolate and holy basil ganache with rice praline guarantees a satisfying finish.
Cuisine Wat Damnak is a stylish destination for world-class Cambodian food, tucked into a residential neighborhood, and named after a nearby Buddhist pagoda. Housed in a traditional Khmer house with a garden, the restaurant wears teak and silk in muted tones enlivened with splashes of color. The restaurant’s tasting menus–$24USD for five courses and $28USD for six–are updated weekly. Reasonably priced wines have been carefully selected to complement Asian flavors. Reservations highly recommended.
A native of Roanne, in France’s Loire region, Joannès Rivière trained in France and was a pastry chef in the U.S. prior to coming to Siem Reap in 2003. He taught at the French NGO-run Sala Baï Hotel School and was executive chef at the prestigious Hotel de la Paix for five years before opening Cuisine Wat Damnak. Joannès Rivière’s knowledge of the region’s culinary history and unique pantry is unrivaled. Thanks to this enterprising Frenchman with a penchant for voluntary service and love of his adopted country, Cambodian flavors are on their way to new heights.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
Between Psa Dey Hoy market and Angkor High School
Wat Damnak village, Sala Kamrek Commune, Siem Reap
+855 77 347 762