Khmer Necessity: Angkor Cambodian Bistro Champions Southeast Asia on the Upper East Side

Red curry is a nice foil for tender roast duck at Angkor.EXPAND
Red curry is a nice foil for tender roast duck at Angkor.
Bradley Hawks

This past New Year's Eve, Minh and Mandy Truong opened Angkor Cambodian Bistro to little fanfare. There were no festivities at their elegantly decorated Upper East Side space, Mandy assures the Voice. But in simply existing, the wife-and-husband team have given their inaugural diners much to celebrate along the easternmost reaches of 64th Street.

The Truongs, who ran Chelsea Thai stalwart Royal Siam for twenty years, have graced New York City with its only (currently operating) sit-down Cambodian restaurant. Angkor takes its name from the capital city of the ancient Khmer Empire, whose boundaries extended beyond modern-day Cambodia and into parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Paintings of its ruins grace the restaurant's backlit walls. For chef Minh — who fled Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge with his family in 1975 — there's victory not only in returning to a professional kitchen, but on a deeper level: the existential homecoming of sharing Khmer cuisine with his fellow New Yorkers. With a culinary career that began as a teenage kitchen volunteer in a refugee camp in Thailand, Minh turned to his mother to learn more about Cambodian cooking. "I watched her every day that I could," he recalls.

Amok, a coconut-seafood curry related to the Thai hor mok, makes for one hell of an introduction. Angkor's kitchen offers two versions of the dish (both $22): a traditional take that finds shrimp-and-scallop-stuffed sea bass covered in red curry and baked in a banana leaf; and a proprietary riff in which Truong grills a parcel of fish until firm before ladling curry sauce on top. Both deserve your attention, though the first wows with its pudding-like consistency.

Red curry also shows up as a nice foil for slices of tender roast duck and as its own entrée, with bamboo shoots and long beans; it's better still in a plate of rice vermicelli and ground mackerel, an omega-3-packed, briny version of a bolognese. A green curry has only a tingle of chile heat, while a mild yellow one arrives accompanied by freshly baked bread — a holdover from the country's French-colonial past.

Angkor's menu is peppered with influences from Cambodia's neighbors. Truong blends minced mackerel with shrimp to make tasty Thai-style fried cakes, though the kuythiew noodles, dressed with crushed peanuts, could pass for pedestrian pad thai. Instead, opt for either of the wide rice noodle dishes, which deliver a balance of spice and sweetness from, respectively, yellow curry powder and fermented soybeans.

Glazed, stir-fried beef and an appetizer of caramelized pork meatballs have Vietnamese doppelgängers. So does banh chao, a derivative of Vietnam's banh xeo rice flour crêpes tinted yellow from turmeric. At Angkor, the thin, crisp pancakes are folded and filled with a mash of ground chicken and shrimp.

Satay, usually a major snooze, is remarkable here, the skewered chicken or beef tenders flavored with lemongrass and coconut milk. Meanwhile the salads, featuring papaya, green mango, or marinated beef, won't overwhelm palates with fiery chiles but still pop from lime juice and fish sauce. Noticeably absent, however, is the Cambodian prahok, a more pungent fermented fish condiment. Diners' tastes have evolved to embrace bolder, sharper flavors since Truong first moved to town in 1981. To the chef I thus beg: Give us the funky fish paste!

There are hints of an undiluted flavor among the soups, especially the two kinds of samlar machu, sour broths boasting head-on prawns and the fruity tang of tamarind. (The more intriguing of them is a bowl that balances tomatoes, lotus stems, and herbs with simmered pineapple, its broth infused with kaffir lime, lemongrass, and coriander.) A third offering is also the mildest of the bunch: a clear, velvety soup made with eggs, fresh corn, crab, and shrimp.

Mandy navigates the spacious dining area with poise, overseeing the attentive service. She's also responsible for a brief and forgiving wine list that tops out at $45. The main room — presided over by a long-lobed Buddha statue facing the doorway — never feels crowded, even with a full house. Weather permitting, consider sitting in the back courtyard. Under the shade of skyscrapers and surrounded by natural wood, dessert is transcendent. Try the pumpkin custard: The flan is baked inside a hollowed-out gourd and served as slices with the rind attached. It's a family recipe, as is "old-fashioned pudding," sticky rice and fresh corn drowned in sugary condensed coconut milk, proving that men of all ages should listen to their mothers.

Angkor Cambodian Bistro
408 East 64th Street

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