I looked over the menu not once, but twice, fervently studying each and every course listed. There are seven on the tasting menu and none of them have any mention of a fish amok. This, dear friends, startles me because it is quite unusual for a Cambodian restaurant to be without a version of the national dish, but then, Embassy is not your usual Cambodian restaurant. This is Cambodian-inspired fine dining, where chefs Pol and Sok have combined their love of local ingredients with their French culinary training. The double act are nicknamed the Kimsan Twins, though they aren’t really twins but coincidentally share a surname. I get it, it’s catchy, but after dining at their all-female restaurant, I think the food and service is memorable enough.
I’ve barely had time to admire the crisp white tablecloths and the very chic decor before the amuse bouche arrives. It’s a steamed baby tomato stuffed with buffalo; I like that it looks dainty and cute, but tastes a lot bigger and bolder. I take this as a sign of things to come and heartily look forward to the next course. The lotus stem salad comes tightly packed together and well dowsed in the sweet and sour dressing which I’m a fan of, even though it means the slow cooked pork belly which is also supposedly present, is nowhere to be tasted.
I am that annoyingly enthusiastic person who is always harping on about eating all the local or traditional foods of the place I am visiting. Little to no research is done on what to see or do, but I’ve always got a list as long as my arm of dishes to try or restaurants to visit. However, there are times when my dogged determination in search of the exotic, authentic or down-right unusual takes its toll on our poor tastebuds, and we find ourselves craving a taste of the familiar. We ate some of the most incredible cuisines in South East Asia, but even I had to admit that you could have too much of a good thing. About once a month we hit pause on anything eaten with chopsticks, anywhere the dining table view was the roadside, and anything we couldn’t pronounce. Which is how we ended up at Khema, a French restaurant and deli with two sites in the heart of Phnom Penh.
After a hot and sweaty tuk tuk ride which took twice as long as it should have, walking into the cool and calm Khema La Poste in the recently rejuvenated Post Office area was a dream. In a past life, this space was a nightclub, but now it is all understated French chic and sophistication. Open all day, we chose to meet in the middle and lunch among the bustling array of local and expat business clientele. I imagine many of them would take advantage of the generous and well-priced lunch menu, a three course offering which changes every two weeks depending on the seasons and chef’s whims. I was tempted, but the a la carte menu filled with familiar favourites was too appealing.
Bordeaux is the only city in Europe I have visited three times; technically not a single time was of my choosing, but each time made me fall in love with it even more. The first visit was a fleeting one, just a couple of hours while we changed trains from Toulouse to San Sebastian and after which we vowed to return. I left a certain someone behind on the second visit, running off to spend the weekend with my girlfriends indulging in too much good wine and great gossip. And finally, the most romantic visit of all was enroute to a beautiful wedding just outside of the city. Three strikes Bordeaux, and you are still very much not out…
Dare I say, Bordeaux is almost the perfect weekend package – it has enough showstopper sights and attractions within the city to keep you interested while also being the perfect base for exploring the wine regions of Saint Emilion and the Médoc. I find the muted tones of the city chic and alluring, I can pass a couple of hours window-shopping both high-end stores and pretty boutiques, and in between all that, I eat and drink. A lot. I may have always ended up in Bordeaux quite by chance but where to spend my precious meal times is something I try not to leave to random selection.
I have settled into my new status as a ‘lady of leisure’ with the enthusiasm of a child starting school holidays and the breeziness of a trust fund baby. It took me a couple of days to get into the swing of things but my days of sweaty tube scrums and clock-watching in the office are now distant memories. Instead, I am luxuriating in this sudden abundance of spare time. I can sleep in, I can stay up late, I have time to read the books I’ve been hoarding from the library and do the exercise I never got round to. Or… I can just do absolutely nothing and not feel one single iota of guilt. In short, my time is mine to do as I choose and it is all strangely liberating and deliciously luxurious.
So with all this freedom, what do I actually choose to do?! It turns out that being a lady of leisure can, at times, be not very leisurely at all… despite having no office to go to and no deadlines to meet, I am still very busy. But the fun kind of busy that involves indulging in all the things I love and embracing the lady of leisure stereotype by also transforming into a lady who lunches. I never understood nor had I truly experienced the joy of long, lazy midweek lunches until now, and for extra status points, I now occasionally do long, lazy Michelin star lunches.
I recently spent an afternoon eating my way through course after course dedicated solely to showcasing the magic of a certain Italian cheese and vinegar. Both are well-loved and often used in all sorts of dishes, but rarely as the main event. The more I ate, the fuller I became… full of delicious food and full of enthusiasm for these two ingredients. So much so that by the end of lunch I had vowed to use my Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena with the respect they deserved, and that did not mean a little sprinkle over pasta or drizzle over salad. My intentions were pure, but it turned out that my devotion was not and a few weeks later, I found myself sprinkling and drizzling as I had always done.
So it seemed like fate when Consorzio Parmigiano Reggiano told me to don my apron for an evening where I could actually do what I vowed I would: cook a dish where Parmigiano Reggiano was the star, and not the supporting act. The prospect of having another opportunity to eat an obscene amount of cheese was enough to get me in the kitchen, but when I found out that the kitchen was the one and only Le Cordon Bleu London, I was deliriously excited. Many of my office daydreams involved trading in my convoluted project plans and business cases for days filled with mise en place and hours in front of the stove at this culinary institution.
London-dwellers, if you are ever in need of a reminder that French cuisine is not just about fine dining frou frou, then a visit to Casse Croûte will sort you out. One minute you’ll be standing in a busy but ordinary street in Bermondsey and moments later you’ll be transported to a bistro somewhere in France. There’s a special place in my head and heart for all the finicky techniques and unpronounceable sauces of French haute cuisine, but there’s nothing more comforting and soul-soothing than rustic French fare. Casse Croûte is dripping in quaintness and kitsch; with all the red and white chequered tablecloths, knick knacks cluttering the shelves, and vintage signs adorning the walls, I should be describing it as a tad tacky. But instead I find myself grinning from ear to ear at the sight of it and telling everyone I know that it’s positively charming.
Of course it helps that the food is remarkably good. Looking the part will only get a restaurant so far, it has to taste the part too and every mouthful here had that ‘ooh la la’ factor. That’s my French for ‘my goodness, that was good…’, by the way. Like all the good French bistros, the menu at Casse Croûte is sparse if you like options, or wonderfully succinct if you’re a menu ditherer like me. Three starters, three mains, and three desserts – the offering changes daily and is written only in French in the big blackboard in the centre of the dining room. If your high school French is a little rusty or you’re a bit slow on the Google translate, you needn’t worry because the bubbly front of house staff are always on hand to translate…
Most people make a special trip to Wimbledon, or indeed their first ever trip to Wimbledon, for the tennis. But not me. All that racquet-swinging and ball-slinging punctuated by the occasional grunt doesn’t particularly interest me, I waited until the tennis was over and went in search of a decent meal. This, I think, is a sport in itself and almost as hard as lifting that coveted trophy when you’re in certain well-heeled neighbourhoods… Despite their high-brow stores and their village-esque vibes, a quick wander down those high streets will uncover a chain… of chain restaurants, that is. Which makes The White Onion really stand out in more ways than one.
This contemporary French restaurant has made its home in Wimbledon village for the past two years, and judging by the steady stream of diners waltzing in on an ordinary Tuesday night, it’s got a loyal following amongst the locals. And why wouldn’t it; the dining room is charming but not pokey, modern but still homely, and the menu is neither daunting nor boring. The food is billed as French, but completely classic it is not with some more exotic influences sprinkled subtly throughout the dishes. Upon first impressions, The White Onion had all the makings of a good neighbourhood bistro.