Just about as far as you can walk on East 64th Street is the home of brand new Angkor Cambodian Bistro, in a space occupied by many restaurants that have come and gone. What is special about this spot now is it houses the only kitchen in town preparing the cuisine of Cambodia, a space in need of filling for a few years.
This restaurant is owned by the husband and wife team that ran Royal Siam in Chelsea for 20 years before getting out in 2013 for a break. He does the cooking while she mingles with guests and makes sure the front of house is running smoothly. We were told a story of tumultuous times in Cambodia that led him to flee to Thailand and be in and around kitchens and cooking styles from both countries. It seems to be the culmination of all their hard work and a larger dream that has been strived for over decades. After all this time, the food of his home country can finally be presented, recipes from mother combined with an insider's knowledge of the New York dining scene.
That scene, and the really good design of this place do not excite me at all. The music playing is old folk and something resembling Kenny G. Unfortunately, the only thing that could remind me of travels in Cambodia is the paintings of ruins. Luckily the food does a nice job overcoming these things.
I have eaten Cambodian in New York City when it used to exist. I have traveled up to Boston and Lowell, Massachusetts to try it there amongst Cambodian communities. I have been to Cambodia Town in Long Beach, California. And yes, to Cambodia as well. It is funny to report that this is the best food of any restaurant I have had of all of them. I often refer to Cambodia negatively when it comes to food, it lags behind its neighbors by some distance. Thai, Vietnamese, and Lao food are all excellent, while the Khmer foods usually just do not pack the punch. Angkor Cambodian Bistro is taking the cuisine to its highest limits.
One of my favorite dining experiences in Cambodia was stopping at a roadside restaurant just outside the Angkor temples specializing in banh chao, a very thin crepe that conceals ground meat and bean sprouts, picked up with pieces of greens and dipped in fish sauce. Unfortunately the greens here were just a chunk of iceberg lettuce, but otherwise the dish is a great representation. We asked for our banh chao ($18, below) as an appetizer.
The other tempting appetizer was the deep fried Khmer fish cakes (10, below), pleasantly chewy discs that come with a slightly spicy and sweet dipping sauce.
I found that in Cambodia, loc lac is sort of the country's pad thai, readily available (and disappointing) everywhere tourists roamed, but also done well in back alley restaurants for locals. Once again, the version here ($18, below) is top notch. The meat is so soft to be beyond tender and a bit odd, but the spices and marinade are delicious. They must deal with winter tomatoes and cucumbers, which do nothing to enhance the dish, but push these aside and imagine other vegetables in warmer climates.
The pride of the restaurant, and an essential order for any Cambodian meal is baked amok ($22, below). As we ordered, she beamed that they enhanced what is normally just a fish dish with shrimp and scallops, something to bring it from the standards of a "poor country" to the Upper East Side and her New York customers. I am not sure the extras do much, the fish would have been just fine, because it is the curry that plays front and center in this meal. Highly recommended.
On the back of the menu is a small selection of noodles, so we decided to ask for a recommendation since we were only going to try one. We were steered towards the nyoam ($16, below), a pungent fish curry with fish sauce that we were urged to eat while hot. This dish was something I had never tried before, and enjoyed, but might not order again.
Our dessert was the pumpkin custard ($6, below), another dish found in Thailand as well as Cambodia. Once again it was the recommended choice, and once again it was a hit at the table.
After everything, a beautiful small tray of jasmine tea was presented to wash mouths and clear palettes before the check came and the meal came to an end. Our conversations with the owners were lovely, she even pulled her husband out of the kitchen to speak to and meet the table for a bit.
Good people and a good restaurant, to be wished well in a city that desperately needs them.