This one time, in Battambang, I did a cookery class. The enthusiastic chef and owner of the unusually named (but not dodgy at all, honest) ‘Smoking Pot’ restaurant took us on an amazing (and pungent) fresh market tour, around stalls of vibrant vegetables and flying fish heads, to buy the ingredients for a couple of speciality Khmer dishes which we went back to cook – and lived to tell the tale. Armed with the knowledge of how much I’d enjoyed that day and the experience of that whole trip, my best friend surprised me with a birthday meal at what claims to be the only Cambodian restaurant in London, and indeed the UK.
Like the recently-opened Vietnamese restaurant CoBa, it has a very local neighbourhood feel, being located a little out-of-the-way. In this case that’s a ten minute walk north from Camden Town, in a spot unlikely to catch the attention of anyone walking past. But unlike CoBa, with its slick interior and bearded hipster barman, this place has been here for decades – and looks it too. It’s like stepping into the dining room of someone’s house, with unfussy décor, white disposable table covers and a glimpse of the who I assume was owner and chef, Thomas Tan, busy at work in the small kitchen area at the back.
They had one waitress on duty the night we were there and she was absolute gold. Chirpy, charming and prompt with the dishes – we couldn’t have asked for more from her. We swiftly chose a Chenin Blanc from their compact wine list and were left perusing the food menu. It reflects the multiple influences on Cambodian cuisine, which borrows heavily from neighbouring Chinese and Vietnamese food, as well as elements of Thai and Malaysian but without as much use of chillies. I recognised some familiar Khmer classics from my trip such as Lok Luk steak, as well as a couple of more Chinese-inspired dishes such as crispy duck.
We decided to share a couple of starters – Crispy Prawns and Chicken Satay Skewers. Both fairly simple dishes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chinese restaurant either. I particularly liked the dips – sweet & sour with the prawns, peanut with the satay – and the accompanying pineapple wedge on each plate was a nice touch. It all combined to give a sweet yet spicy flavour from both dishes.
Main course was a Spicy Pineapple Chicken dish – which, as something of a pineapple fiend, I really liked with fresh red chillies adding a good kick. We also ordered the classic Khmer dish Fish Amok, a curry usually steamed in a banana leaf that I had a go at making back in Battambang. I have to say it didn’t taste as good as I remembered, but I suppose recipes vary, as do UK-sourced ingredients versus the ‘so fresh they’re still alive’ fish stalls at that Cambodian market. Enjoyable nevertheless, with the staple steamed rice. The menu also warns you to allow a little extra time for the Amok to steam, which we passed easily with our wine.
It was actually only then that I realised they’d written Happy Birthday on the mirror behind us – which was an incredibly sweet touch and the kind of thing you can only get away with in a small place like this. So while the food didn’t blow me away, they serve it with a lot of heart, authenticity and at reasonable prices, that I think (and hope) will continue to charm the locals as well as Cambodia-curious eaters from further afield for another couple of decades yet.
243 Royal College Street, NW1 9LT