Cambodia is perhaps the most wonderful country I have ever been to, or at least one of them.* Despite my not-so-grand entrance, I have nothing but extremely fond memories of the short time I was there. First of all, there is Angkor Wat – I have never seen anything quite so awesome, in the literal sense. And, everybody smiles. All the time. Cambodian people are some of the friendliest I’ve met, and they put coconut in everything they eat. Finally, of course, I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap high on life, at the height of a whirlwind holiday romance (cue Eat, Pray Love) that turned out not to be so whirlwind after all – four and a half years later, and I’m eating Cambodian food in Camden with the very same guy.
It was difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that no less than 30 years before, more than 2 million people were murdered in Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. You wouldn’t know it today – the Cambodian people exude a passion for life that is unparalleled – I suppose you have to not take life for granted to really live it right.
From what I remember, this passion for life translates into passion for food. After nearly a year and a half in Asia, when I got to Cambodia I was itching for a bit of homestyle grub, so one night after a few tomb raider cocktails (yes – this is what they are actually called) at the Red Piano restaurant in Siem Reap, I ordered up a Cambodian-style pizza at a small restaurant next door. There was a hint of coconut in the tomato sauce, and it was sublime. My recollections are that Cambodian food, like its Lao, Thai and Vietnamese compatriots, consists of a lot of stir fried noodles and curries, with the added bonus of the cherished coconut as the ingredient of the hour.
So Duncan and I hopped on the Northern line on Saturday night (some of us more reluctantly than others – “but we’ve BEEN to Cambodia”) and made the journey up to what is apparently the only authentic Cambodian restaurant in London, and, in fact, the UK – decked out in our wellies and Goretex jackets to brave the cold November rain.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Lemongrass Cafe was that the two girls sitting next to us were drinking Tiger beer, which is always a plus, although I’d hoped for some Angkor – the real deal. The second thing I noticed was that the restaurant appeared to be staffed by two Caucasian women, perhaps of Eastern European descent – although there also seemed to be a Cambodian man frantically cooking away in the tiny kitchen to the rear of the dining room. Not exactly the same kind of family-run feel as I had come across last week at Mandalay Way, but perhaps I shouldn’t have expected as much.
I don’t think this restaurant is the type of place many people happen upon unless a) like me, you have Google searched “London + Cambodian restaurant” and have come up with a total of one result or b) if you are getting off a double decker at the bus stop directly in front of Lemograss, and are in need of a light bite. On Royal College Road, the place, although not hard at all to find, is out of the way.
This meant two things for us – one, we need not have booked, even on a Saturday. There were perhaps four other parties in the restaurant and room for at least a few more. Two, it meant that it was a bit quieter than we would have anticipated on a Saturday evening – we don’t often go out to eat on Saturdays because we like to hear each other when we talk – but there is a happy medium.
The waitress came over right away and took our order for drinks and food. A little eager, are we? I thought, until I realised the reason for her haste- not only was there only one cook for a room full of hungry diners, but the chef was also apparently catering to the needs of around ten groups of hungry Camdenites who had all ordered food for collection. This is fine – some of my favourite local food establishments also double as takeaways – but the key to a successful business is prioritising the people who are actually sitting in your restaurant.
We had already been through the menu – I hadn’t had lunch, and was rearing to go. I was a bit perplexed at the absence of coconut from all items on the menu – I could have sworn that that was what made Cambodian food unique, but then again, I didn’t do much pre-research this time. I just really like coconut. What we did find was a lot of lemongrass and a lot of ginger, which was all fine by us – there was even the option of ordering ginger egg fried rice, although I thought this might have been overkill.
Our chicken satay and order of crispy fried leek cakes came quickly enough, which made the very long wait for our main courses just a little bit more bearable. To be fair, although lacking a Saturday evening “buzz”, the place was relaxing, and our table for two in a corner at the front by the window made for a good setting for an intimate meal for two. And, to top things off, they were playing Cat Stevens’ Wild World, on repeat. I love Cat Stevens. Who doesn’t, really?
When the food finally did arrive, the waitress was apologetic for the wait. We’d ordered spring chili chicken, mixed with cabbage, red onion and coriander – “an unforgettable taste for chili lovers,” according to the menu. As well, we opted for the appropriately named Phnom Penh chicken, which, as it turned out, was basically sweet and sour chicken, with a little bit more sweet than its Chinese equivalent. Last but not least, we had the pak choi ginger, stir fried with ginger, garlic and tomato, served with rice wine and oyster sauce.
It was all perfectly cooked, albeit a bit too syrupy for my liking – but I was so hungry that the whole lot went down very well. That being said, I couldn’t really identify anything novel about it. Even the unforgettable dish wasn’t very unforgettable at all.
The damage: Mains run from about £6.50-£8.50 a pop, with starters going for between 4 and 5. The restaurant does offer a tasting menu at £20 pounds a head, but the one review that I did read before heading out here made me think that that might be too much food. Our bill came to £50 for the three mains, two starters plus beer – not expensive to say the least, but certainly not a complete steal.
The verdict: A nice, but not mind-blowing meal, but if you really want Cambodian food – go to Cambodia.
*Probably a close second to either Laos, Vanuatu, or the Philippines.
Need to know:
243 Royal College Street
Nearest tube: Camden Town
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 5:30-11. Closed Sunday.