Robert Tompkins dines in le royal style in Phnom Penh, at Raffles Hotel Le Royal.
We were met at Restaurant Le Royal with smiles and the folded palms and slight bows of the traditional sampeah greeting. Chandeliers hung from the high recessed ceilings, which were creatively painted with a floral motif. The lighting was subdued and enhanced by candles. There were eleven tables, spaced far apart to provide privacy. Only five were occupied by other couples.
While sipping an aperitif, we perused the ten-page menu, which featured international (predominately French) and Khmer cuisine. A separate menu listed the special five-course “Degustation Menu” to which I succumbed, while Doris, whose appetite is far less rapacious than that of her husband, ordered à la carte.
The tasting menu began with an appetizer of cucumber parfait wrapped in a beetroot coat and topped with caviar-laced sour cream—preparing the palate for the following course of goose liver ravioli served with an artichoke essence. Sharing brought further dimension to our meal, as Doris’s generously portioned starter of melt-in-the-mouth pan-fried goose liver complemented perfectly the rhubarb compote.
Poised delicately between our starter and entrée, an amuse-bouche of duck carpaccio was served to Doris to coincide with my course of salmon confit, which was matched with a slightly tart calamansi-and-lime butter sauce and presented on a bed of lightly spiced eggplant. Then came the high note. Paired with chateau potatoes and sautéed French beans, Doris’s entrée of duck à l’orange was moist and delicately flavored, while my oven-roasted veal mignons were basted in a tamarind–port wine sauce and accompanied by braised cabbage with glazed sweet potatoes.
Although dessert would indeed be excessive, we surrendered to the temptation. For me, the tasting menu concluded with a wild-berry-and-chocolate charlotte. Doris yielded to the waiter’s recommendation of deep-fried port wine ice cream with red pear compote. This final gustatory indulgence left us sated and attempting to aid digestion with cognac.
Throughout our meal the muted background music featured Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the unmistakable vocals of big-band-era singer Jimmy Rushing. Service was well honed and flawless. Our needs were anticipated and attended to unobtrusively and smoothly, and for just one night, a sense of time and place seemed to slip away. We were no longer in twenty-first-century Cambodia. The real world dissolved into a surrogate of comfortable illusion.
We left to a chorus wishing us a good evening along with a replay of the smiles and sampeahs that had greeted us two and a half hours previously. Wrapped in a cozy postdinner lethargy, we sat on our balcony at the hotel. The sultry night was frangipani scented and echoing with cricket calls. Surrendering to the serenity of the moment, we drifted in Le Royal’s lost-in-time version of Phnom Penh.
Restaurant Le Royal, Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92, Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh (off Monivong Boulevard), Phnom Penh.
This copyright article by Robert Tompkins appeared in the guidebook, To Cambodia With Love, published by ThingsAsian Press in 2011.