Einstein’s Theory of Relativity assumes that matter and energy are conserved; in a closed system the totality of both—interchangeable according to the formula E = mc2—remains the same. A corollary pertains to the New York dining scene, positing that restaurants, too, are conserved. The Theory of Restaurant Relativity maintains that when a restaurant disappears, an equivalent pops up somewhere else in the five boroughs—if only you can find it. Latest confirmation of this theory is Cambodian food. For years the city’s only Cambodian restaurant was Fort Greene’s South East Asian Cuisine, offering lots of Thai and Chinese dishes, but only a handful of uniquely Cambodian ones, including the amazing amok (a gingery mousse of pureed chicken), tchruok spey koaob (a beguiling collection of pickled veggies), and some sour and fishy noodle soups. Sadly, S.E.A. Cuisine went belly-up not long ago. Evincing our theory, however, Kampuchea Noodle Bar appeared about the same time on the Lower East Side. Located at the busy corner of Allen and Rivington streets, the café is all big windows and dark woods, with raised communal tables flanked by high backless stools. The chef and his pals made the tables themselves. K.N.B. already feels like a quintessential L.E.S. spot.
A child of Cambodian refugees, chef Ratha Chau formerly worked as restaurant manager at Fleur de Sel. Despite his never cheffing before, his cooking skills are prodigious. As with its Fort Greene predecessor, Kampuchea Noodle Bar offers a menu that spans Southeast Asia. As the chef explained one evening, “Cambodians have a cuisine that borrows from all the countries around us due to our central location.” Indeed, the best things on the menu are the sandwiches called num pang ($7 to $9), which resemble Vietnamese banh mi. The one called Kampuchea (the Khmer name for Cambodia) layers pork pâté, headcheese, and ground pork on a freshly toasted baguette. Less organ-oriented and almost as scrumptious, another features memorable pork meatballs.
The sandwiches come slathered with a pink coconut concoction that’s a dead ringer for Russian dressing. The same mayo recurs on the grilled corn ($6), a pair of sweet ears dusted with dried cheese, which seems more Mexican than Cambodian but is damn good nonetheless. There’s an interesting papaya salad flavored with tiny dried shrimp rather than fish sauce, and a fantastic plate of homemade pickles—which you needn’t order because a handful comes with most things on the menu.
There are deconstructed Southeast Asian crepes too, and small grilled dishes of chicken wings, pork loin, skirt steak, and baby cuttlefish, but the menu is anchored by seven meal-size soups ($13 to $17). Filet mignon katiev is something like Vietnamese pho, but it’s a bit dull, partly due to the prim slices of filet flung into its depths. Use fatty stew beef, dude, and cook the fuck out of it! Meanwhile, bwah moun soup is transcendently wonderful. The ever clueless Time Out described it as a congee, but they must not have ever seen it, because the soup is really the opposite of a congee, the dark, fragrant broth scented with basil and shallots and rife with intact grains of broken rice. It’s one of the best soups I’ve slurped lately, convincing me that K.N.B. is a fit replacement for S.E.A. Cuisine and a perfect illustration of my Theory of Restaurant Relativity.