Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 4
Part 4 continues....
We decided that between the three of us sharing dishes, we could indulge in the entire menu for that evening taking in several Khmer dishes, as well as satisfying my sudden craving for a decent steak! Yes, I know—you come all the way to Cambodia for a steak—but hey, that's what Aman hedonism is all about: No rules, no guilt.
Mind you, I am starting to think my daughter has a more adventurous palate than me, indeed she is already quite the gourmand, but even I was surprised by her enjoying a local beef tongue dish, while her dad was working his way through a much more orthodox although superb sirloin of Australian Black Angus beef. Actually, my steak came with a sauce made from locally grown pepper, which is what caught my eye in the first place, in terms of a perfect wine pairing with a Syrah I had noticed on the wine list.
At this juncture, I must mention the wine list and cellar, which is concise, however offers a wonderfully eclectic mix and as Aman regulars have come to appreciate, there will always be some fascinating wines and older or rare bottles—no matter which Aman resort you are in—and that can be in some seriously exotic and remote parts of the world.
I had quickly spotted the Bonny Doon Cigare Volant 2003 which looked like pure hedonism to me moreover, enticed my steak-craving mood even more with the thought it would match perfectly with the locally sourced pepper used in the sauce adorning the beef. What's more, 2003 is my daughters' birth year, so we all got an extra emotional buzz out of liberating this bottle.
Equally, it seemed fitting that this wine is made by the hedonist winemaker and most sensualist wine writer on planet earth (there's always a chance he will be the first person to make a wine on another planet), Randall Grahm. He is author of the outrageously humorous and profoundly engaging Been Doon So Long.
Actually, I did have a certain expectation that our wine experience here would be sufficiently stimulating, with some inside knowledge of the workings of the Aman wine program, having personally known Aman Resorts global food and beverage manager/executive chef, Richard Genn (another New Zealander), for over twenty years.
Genn, was until recently based in Singapore at Aman headquarters, but constantly on the move between Aman resorts all over the world, finessing existing properties, opening new ones, and endlessly solving culinary logistics and empowering his chefs. He is your quintessential 'chef's chef,' thoroughly restaurant savvy and has a perspicacious comprehension of the diners needs. Moreover, he is one of those rare chefs whose talents extends to wine, and he has an incredible palate and extraordinarily broad knowledge of fine and old wines.
Expectations aside, there's something mysteriously intangible yet manifestly (palate) uplifting and seemingly pleasure-enhancing when drinking a simple wine in the remotest, exotic, far-flung corners of the world. A, honest, good, day-to-day wine can be immensely if not immeasurably enjoyable, as was the Hugel Pinot Blanc we started with. Although, I have to confess that this wine is a favorite and has saved me from a dry argument with pedestrian wine lists the world over. It emphasizes that it is not a necessity to spend bags of money on indulgence.
Conversely, and unashamedly, the half bottle of Chateau Pichon Lalande 2000 that I had all to myself transcended great wine to the sublime and it was not an inexpensive bottle...but there I go again, a complete and utter hedonist.
Knowing our preoccupation with food and culinary inquisitiveness, Sally Baughen had thoughtfully arranged for us to dine the following night at Cuisine Wat Damnak, as it is unquestionably the best modern Cambodian cuisine in the country and Chef Joannès Rivière the equivalent food historian and renaissance man/chef in Cambodia as the legendary Chef David Thompson is to Thailand.
Chef Joannès has been immersed in the culinary world from an early age working in his family restaurant near Roanne in the Loire, and you can sense his classical training and French genes in the skilfully-executed degustation menu with an impeccable attention to detail and individuality in each dish. However, the ethos here is locally sourced, fresh seasonal produce with the emphasis on the regions unique fruits, vegetables, plants, herbs and spices—cultivated and gathered in the wild—along with daily visits to the Siem Reap markets and local women's cooperative to source what is at its freshest and best. This includes native freshwater fish and shellfish from the Mekong and Tonle Sap lake.
Interpreting what defines modern Cambodian cuisine is as intriguing as the complexities of the Khmer empire itself and influenced by indigenous and foreign cultures, both past and present. There is evidence of the Kingdom of Champa, which is a breakaway Chinese seafaring culture that invaded Cambodia with its roots as far back as second century AD, and a fascinating transition and evolution as a colony with its infusion of Indian and Islamic culture. There are the regional confluences of China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and a myriad of ethnic cultures that in more recent times shaped Indo-China, along with the subsequent French colonialism.
Perhaps the soul of Chef Joannès modern Cambodian cuisine lies in his own evolution, eschewing the western culinary world he had become disenchanted with and coming to Cambodia as a volunteer cookery teacher at the French NGO-run Sala Baï Hotel School in Siem Reap, teaching cooking and hospitality skills to underprivileged young Cambodians. He went on to write the school’s cookbook, one of the first cookery books about Cambodian food ever written and internationally published both in French and English.
Located in a colorful and informal setting—both indoors and outdoors—of a former traditional Khmer house in a quiet neighborhood of Siem Reap, the restaurant is just 500 meters from the temple Wat Damnak, to which it takes its name. Chef Joannès' charming wife, Carole, runs the front of house with an exuding friendliness and infectious enthusiasm when guiding you through the two set degustation menus on offer. I found the whole experience totally engaging, yet suitably relaxed. Indeed, it is a wonderful juxtaposition to the somewhat chaotic central Siem Reap and the bustling markets, local stalls and more rustic street food.
I would suggest dinner at Cuisine Wat Damnak is an imperative for anyone that enjoys their food, moreover it is incredibly affordable given the quality of food and skill of cooking; if I were staying around Siem Reap for more than a week, I would definitely go for a return visit as the menu changes every Tuesday and there will doubtlessly be new ingredients to discover. Putting that into perspective, Cambodia has over 1,000 species of freshwater fish, so there's a fair chance you will be experiencing something new!
For those seeking a more intensive emersion in the local produce, a visit to Pasa Ler (Big Market in Khmer) is a must and one of Amansara’s kitchen brigades can guide you through the maze of passageways at the market, followed by a visit to a noodle shop to watch the preparation of nom ben chok (fresh rice noodles).
Equally strategic for all guests of Amansara is a visit to their Khmer Village House located near the Angkor temples and where you can take a class in the preparation of Khmer dishes in a traditional kitchen under the instruction of one of the resort's Khmer chefs. Not only do you get to enjoy what you have cooked, more importantly, you now have a lifelong memory to share with others with the Khmer menu that you can easily prepare and entertain friends at home.
Needless to say, you will take away many memories from Angkor. For me personally, the most indelible impression I have from our trip is our farewell from Amansara. All the staff came out to see us off with a collective wave goodbye, and I mean all the staff: cooks, front of house, back of house, housekeeping, gardeners, drivers¬, managers—EVERYONE! This presented a great photo opportunity, at the same time quite emotionally overwhelming and a very special moment underlining the 'Aman Family' ethos.
Amansara is an extraordinary experience, in an even more extraordinary setting and perhaps many would view it as a once in a lifetime experience, but like the alluring intrigue of the Khmer empire, I would do it all again tomorrow.
Footnote: Tourism is now the lifeblood of Angkor, but beware the beggar children, buying the cheap trinkets they hawk is unlikely to benefit them directly and it is more constructive if you give generously to one of the certified local charities: Amansara has put together a directory that lists organizations and individuals that can be trusted and supported. These organizations cover a broad spectrum of social concerns from performing arts, children and women’s health, higher education, de-mining, handy craft, cultural heritage and the preservation of wildlife. Also, International foundations such as The Ponheary Ly Foundation or the Sala Baï Hotel & Restaurant School. The Sala Baï Hotel School "Gives wings to young Cambodians full of hope and potential to contribute to their training through sponsorship, donation or even booking a holiday or going to lunch at our Hotel and Restaurant School."
Missed Part 3 of Hedonistic with the Gods?
Check it out here: Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 3
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Hedonistic with the Gods - Amansara, Angkor - Part 3
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Part 3 continues... And return we did, in the denseness of darkness in the morning, and I mean early morning—5am! And that entailed being gently woken up by the Amansara staff at 4am for pastries and (strong) coffee, then sneaking away from the compound with our motorcade of US Army Jeeps, our platoon of minders looking measurably more conscious than we were. And when I say darkness, that sort of density of darkness when you cannot see six inches in front of you; that eerie feeling of pitch blackness that envelopes all of your body and senses. Once your past the guard entrance, there is no artificial light whatsoever at the back entrance of Angkor Wat, actually there is no signage and no sign of anyone and its seems like our guides covert mission is going to plan. Dismounting from our motorcade and continuing on foot with just our guide, we crept along a track for what seemed an eternity, the jungle trees extinguishing any sense of one's bearings. Eventually our night vision slowly allows us to make out the shadows of the outer compound walls of the temple and the very first hues of morning twilight provide a glimpse...