By Elizabeth Keyser
4:55 PM EST, November 5, 2013
Most of us know about Thai and Vietnamese food — but Cambodian? A new restaurant in Fairfield, Royal House Cambodia Cuisine, is introducing it to the county. Cambodian cuisine shares with its neighbors ingredients like basil, ginger and lemongrass, but Mandy Truong, co-owner with her husband chef Minh, says it's lighter, and features more vegetables and fish. Cambodia is a country of rivers and lakes, bordered in the south by the Gulf of Thailand. A far wider range of herbs, vegetables, and fruits are eaten there than can be represented on Royal House's menu.
On our recent visit, with a little guidance from Mandy Truong, we homed in on dishes that sounded unfamiliar to us. Nem Nuong is Cambodian street food, described on the menu as grilled "pork hash" ($7). It turned out to be skewers of juicy round balls of chopped pork. Meaty, garlicky, with a touch of sweetness, they were springy in texture and had a good char from the grill. We dipped them into the bowl of peanut sauce, and enjoyed the deeply fermented flavor, more intense than what we are used to in Vietnamese spring rolls.
We've had green papaya salad many a time in Vietnamese restaurants, but we've never seen green mango salad on a menu. It's a must-order at Royal House. Even though the julienned mango is green and crunchy, it has a floral essence and slight sweetness, and it's tossed in lime dressing. Toasted coconut gives a chewy texture, and diced avocado lends creamy richness. Toasted peanuts add crunch and protein.
The steamed dumplings, in what the menu describes as "paper-thin" egg roll sheets, are open-topped purses that reminded us of shumai, though they were bigger. These were made in-house, filled with a ground mixture of pork, shrimp, herbs and vegetables. The dumplings were light in texture, yet rich in flavor.
Amok, the national dish of Cambodia, is pieces of fish in red curry sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, to make a custard-like dish. Royal House presents a more elevated version. Sea bass is stuffed with shrimp, scallops and lemongrass, baked in a banana leaf, then topped with an exceptional red curry sauce ($22). The sauce's spicy kick is enriched by the coconut milk (the chef makes his own coconut milk from fresh, grated coconut). It came with steamed broccoli florets crying out to be rolled in the sauce.
Spicy Siem Reap noodles (named after the Northern city popular with tourists because of its proximity to the Ankor temples) were wide, flat rice noodles with a wonderful smoky flavor, sautéed pork (or chicken, shrimp or vegetables), and broccoli that was cooked just right, bright green, crunchy-tender.
For dessert, the "old fashioned pudding" seemed appealingly contemporary, with a salty-sweet flavor and delicate textures. Ethereal, almost translucent sticky rice, mixed with corn kernels (sounds unusual but it tasted like it was meant to be) and topped with warm, salty coconut milk. It's another "must-order."
Royal House is no hole in the wall. It's an attractive restaurant, with soothing avocado-green walls, comfortable padded brown leatherette chairs and banquettes. The big glass window obscures the view of the parking lot with strings of glistening beads in shades of yellow, green and white.
Chef Minh was born in Cambodia. He began cooking in a refugee camp in Thailand. He lived in Vietnam for three years and came to the U.S. in the '80s, and worked in a French restaurant in Manhattan for 10 years. In 1993, Minh and Mandy opened Royal Siam Thai Cuisine in Chelsea, on Eight Avenue and 22nd Street. They got good reviews, a write-up in The New York Times and in Bon Appetit.
Over the years, however, more and more Thai restaurants opened around them. So they decided to start anew. They sold Royal Siam, traveled the world for a year, and ate in many restaurants throughout Asia. "My husband said, I think I am still a good chef," Mandy says. Ready for a change from the city (they commute from Queens each day), they opened Royal House Cambodia in Fairfield. Opening a Cambodian restaurant, "Is a bit of a gamble," says Mandy.
It's not a gamble for Fairfield County diners. There's plenty to explore and more to learn about the distinctions between the cuisine of Cambodia and its neighbors, for example the curries, which are more watery and delicate than the stronger and stickier Thai curries. Another Cambodian street food on the menu is Nyoa Misua, rice noodles cooked with ground fish and red curry sauce. The lunch special ($12) offers two rice noodle soups that I must return to try — lemongrass noodle soup and beef ball noodle soup.
One warning: Royal House gets busy Friday and Saturday nights. It's just Minh and his sister in the kitchen and Mandy in the dining room, and the dishes are all made to order. There can be a wait. Try it on a less-busy midweek day. Minh and Mandy are hoping to introduce more specials on the menu as they settle into their new restaurant.
Royal House Cambodia Cuisine
222C Post Road, Fairfield, (203) 955-1650, royalhousecambodiacuisine.com