[UPDATE: This restaurant has closed] Food is a never-ending exploration, and the latest before us is the food of Cambodia. Fairfield has a new restaurant, Royal House Cambodia Cuisine. Chef-owner Minh and his wife Mandy Truong have come to Fairfield after owning Siam Thai in Chelsea, New York City for 20 years. Siam Thai was written up in the New York Times and Bon Appétit.
Cambodia is a land of rivers and lakes, bordered by the Gulf of Thailand, and nestled between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The cuisine is lighter and features more vegetables and fish than Thai or Vietnamese, says Mandy, “The curries are more watery and delicate, less sticky and strong than in Thailand.” Cambodian cooks use the familiar flavors of basil, ginger, cilantro and lemongrass, and a far wider range of herbs, vegetables and fruits unavailable in New York and Connecticut.
Here’s what we tried:
Springy textured Khmer fish cakes, aromatic with lemongrass and hot with red curry. Dipped into sweet plum sauce, studded with chopped cucumbers and onions and dusted with peanuts. The raw carrots and cucumbers on the plate? Eat them. Dip them in the sauce, put them on a bite of fish cake.
Green mango salad is new to us, and it’s got much more flavor than green papaya salad. There’s an unexpected floral sweetness in the green, crunchy strips of mango tossed in lime dressing. Toasted coconut adds a pleasing chewy texture, diced avocado lends creamy richness, and toasted peanuts add crunch. I’m going to have to order this every time.
Nem nuong is Cambodian street food, grilled skewers ($7) of pork meatballs, garlicy, slightly sweet, juicy, springy, and delightfully charred. We dipped them in peanut sauce with a fermented flavor. Steamed dumplings, homemade shumai in super-thin, light wrappers, were stuffed with ground shrimp, pork, herbs and vegetables.
Amok is the “national dish” of Cambodia, pieces of fish in red curry sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed into something like a custard. In Royal House’s fancy version ($22), the sea bass filet is stuffed with shrimp, scallops and lemongrass, then wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. It’s topped with an exceptional red curry sauce. The sauce’s spicy kick is rounded by coconut milk, which Minh makes from fresh, grated coconut. We rolled steamed broccoli florets in the savory sauce.
Spicy Siem Reap noodles are named after the Northern city near the Ankor temples. They’ll remind you of Thai noodles. Wide, flat rice noodles with a wonderful smoky flavor, with sautéed pork (or chicken, shrimp or vegetables), and broccoli cooked just right, bright green, crunchy-tender.
For dessert, what Royal House calls “old fashioned pudding” seemed appealingly contemporary, with a salty-sweet flavor and delicate textures of ethereal, almost translucent sticky rice, mixed with sweet, tender corn kernels topped with warm, salty coconut milk. It’s a must-order.
At lunch, Royal House has an excellent $12 deal for two courses, appetizer and main. The spicy lemongrass noodle soup, an entrée, had a lively, sweet-sour broth, thin rice noodles , and lots of squid, shrimp, mussels, clams, with a showering of cilantro and bean sprouts.
Royal House is an attractive restaurant , with avocado-green walls, comfortable padded brown chairs and banquettes. Strings of glistening yellow, green and white beads cover the big window, obscuring the parking lot in this shopping plaza past Fairfield Cirlcle.
After running a restaurant in New York City for so many years, Minh and Mandy are enjoying the pace of Fairfield County – even though it means driving back to Queens every night. (Actually, Mandy says the drive to Fairfield County is less of a burden than driving from Queens into Manhattan every day).
Chef Minh was born in Cambodia. He began cooking in a refugee camp in Thailand. Later he lived in Vietnam, and came to the U.S. in 80s. In Manhattan, he worked in a French restaurant for 10 years before opening up Royal Siam. But as Thai food caught on, more and more Thai restaurants began opening up around them. They sold Royal Siam, traveled the world for a year, and ate in many restaurants all over Asia. Those meals confirmed to Minh that he was a good chef. Then fate stepped in when acquaintances asked for help with a noodle house they’d opened in Fairfield.
Minh and Mandy took over and decided it was time to introduce Cambodian food to Fairfield County. Royal House Cambodian, “is a bit of a gamble,” says Mandy. It shouldn’t be – the light, spicy, flavor-packed seafood and vegetable dishes are just what we’re looking for now.
One warning: This is a small, family business. Try it on less busy midday week if you don’t want to wait. And if it’s a busy Friday or Saturday, be patient. All the dishes are made to order, and it’s just Minh and his sister in the kitchen and Mandy in the dining room.
Royal House Cambodia Cuisine222C Post Road, Fairfield, CT 06824 (203) 955-1650