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When I was in Phnom Penh, I wanted to find high-quality Khmer (Cambodian) food. Now, every touristy restaurant and street vendor serves Khmer dishes, but I was looking for the best in the city. So I did a little research online and came across Romdeng, a restaurant with an interesting backstory, which is it's one of several establishments run by Friends International and its local affiliate Mith Samlanh. For those unfamiliar, Friends International is an NGO that helps urban youth. What Mith Samlanh has done with their two restaurants, Friends and the more upscale Romdeng, is to take children off the streets, train them in the hospitality industry as chefs, servers, etc. and then help them get jobs across Cambodia when they finish the program. Another benefit of this program is a revitalization of Khmer cuisine, since all the chefs (and anyone else with an education) were killed during the Khmer Rouge period. Because of this tragic history, the country has been in danger of losing the old recipes.
Romdeng drew me because it is located in a former colonial mansion and had been written up in a number of places, including The New York Times. I was not in the least bit disappointed by my experience there. In fact, it was one of the best meals I have had in Southeast Asia, and I have traveled extensively in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The colonial décor was charming, the service was fantastic, and I had the honor to be served by a “teacher” and two of his students who were conscientious in their duties of fine dining service. Finally, the food was fantastic. It was unfortunate that I was by myself (my friends had not yet arrived in the city) because the portions were very large, and this meant I could not try as many Cambodian specialties as I would have liked, of which there were several pages. I used the opportunity to sample deep-fried tarantulas and red tree ants (see separate entries), the two most exotic offerings on the menu, and finished with a more ordinary dessert of turmeric and rice flour crepes, filled with bananas and topped with coconut gelato. The entire meal (including two beers) totaled $20, which is more expensive than most places in Phnom Penh, but still an excellent value for the delicious food, ambient atmosphere, and excellent service provided.
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