The only game in town for Cambodian cuisine, which falls somewhere on the map and the palate between Thailand and Vietnam, is at Cafe Cambodge in the East Village.
Some months after Hurricane Sandy filled Ben Alter’s former French-Caribbean restaurant Arcane with water up to his knees, he decided to convert it to a different cuisine.
For Alter, who grew up in Martinique until the age of 16, it was to be a departure from his native flavors. Some of his regulars protested, as regulars are wont to do sometimes. But when they had a taste of the creations from executive chef Eric Meas, the protests turned to praise.
The cuisine is now French-Cambodian, which is another way of saying that if you sit a French person and a Cambodian person at dinner here side by side, they’ll both be scratching their heads from time to time, to find both the familiar and the foreign mingling on their plates.
In Meas’s hands, it works, though. Meas, who used to accompany his street-vendor mother at the early age of 4 and later worked under Daniel Boulud, is adept in his use of ingredients—at times subtle, at times bold.
Above all he is keen for people to be introduced to the flavors of Cambodian cuisine. But the French influence is also unmistakable—not only in the refined presentation, but also in touches like anisette and port wine, in the braised short ribs, which marry well with mashed taro root and coconut essence.
The grilled Cambodian corn on the cob, slathered with a sauce of coconut milk, scallion, and honey, with those wonderful, coveted charred bits, is a marvel and not to be missed ($7). Subtly sweet and savory all at once, it’ll make you want to lick your fingers when no one is looking.
Almost every dish I tasted contained something addictive. In the Cambodge Calamari ($11), it was the caramelized chunks of pineapple, served alongside tender calamari, and cherry tomatoes, cilantro, and mint. It was a beautiful play of balance, a little sweet here and there, and the whole dish emanating just the slightest pleasant heat.
The proportions for this, and for the grilled nine-spice hanger steak salad (very good, with a veritable kick, $11), though both appetizers, were as large as main dishes in most other places, making them great for sharing.
For those looking for an introduction to Cambodian cuisine, Meas recommends the pumpkin-stuffed tilapia ($16), served in a banana leaf, with red curry vegetables. The fish, spiced with star anise, turmeric, and sumac, is stuffed with pumpkin, giving it an unexpected earthy, mellow sweetness followed by a spiciness that draws out slowly, as if it had all the time in the world.
That also pretty much sums up the relaxed vibe here, which is in turn mellow or lively, depending on the clientele.
Honey-colored wood banquettes line the exposed brick walls, covered with cushions of vibrant colors. It’s a handsome spot, but Cafe Cambodge is warm and welcoming, without an ounce of pretension.
111 Avenue C (between Seventh and Eighth streets)
Sunday–Thursday: 5.30 p.m.–11 p.m. (Bar till 2 a.m.)
Friday & Saturday: 5.30 p.m.–midnight (Bar till 4 a.m.)