Last week I found myself in Vancouver, Canada, and, craving Asian food and underwhelmed by the city's high-end dining scene, I decided to try out a Chinatown restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain. I had been a fan of his TV shows for years and have unashamedly binge-watched No Reservations and Parts Unknown, interested in his take on places I have and haven't visited.
Yes, Bourdain was sometimes contrived and sometimes wrong – not least about vegetarians, who he flippantly and arrogantly attacked with bravado. But his curiosity, general enthusiasm and open embrace of countries and cultures as they are, not as we want them to be, was crucially important, laced as it sometimes was with criticism.
Phnom Penh at 244 East Georgia Street is a 20-minute walk from Vancouver’s main downtown area, the other side of an apocalyptically scruffy area filled with homeless people. I was on a tight time crunch and was disappointed to find a huge crowd of people waiting for tables. I asked a staff member if I could sit at a spare seat between two groups but was curtly told “no!” and to wait “half an hour.”
I had to leave, and was tempted never to return, seeing as the ex-chef’s approval more than 10 years ago had clearly spoiled the place, turning it into a money spinner. While other restaurants on the same street were virtually empty, this one was turning over many hundreds of diners every day, and some online reviews called the food mediocre as well as complaining about the rude staff.
I returned two days later at lunchtime. This time I was dealt with much more politely and seated at a round table. A warm glass of perfect-strength jasmine tea was ready waiting; two satisfied diners were finishing up and another single customer called Sally, who emigrated from Singapore 30 years ago, struck up a friendly conversation.
I ordered the recommended Cambodian-style chicken wings – fried in a seasoned batter and finished with a sauce of garlic, vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar, among other things – and my favourite Vietnamese soup Canh Chua, which until now I’ve only enjoyed in Vietnam and London. Sally, who lives nearby, ordered her “usual” of Singapore-style noodles. Sally told me she’d been coming here since 1992 and that the price had hardly changed. “It’s still less than C$10 [Dh28]!” she said. “They don’t gouge you!”
Sally’s food arrives and she devours it methodically while quizzing me about my life; then mine arrives and it’s sensational. The soup is sizzling in a heavy pot and is better than either London or Vietnam. The sweet, sour, spicy broth has a fruity zing, at the bottom there’s fresh cod topped with crunchy vegetables.
The chicken wings are the best I’ve ever had. After Sally leaves, the manager, an elegant Cambodian woman with a pile of rice paper, takes her place. As she unfolds the rice paper ready for making spring rolls, she tells me most of the staff are Chinese, as the Cambodian community here is small. When Bourdain visited, more than a decade ago, “he came with a big group. He was nice. He saw that we have been here a long time and our food is good. Now we have more than 500 customers a day!”
She sighs when I mention his death, saying, simply, “life.” I feel comforted.
Visiting that restaurant underlines one of travel’s core lessons. Don’t judge too quickly. Resist the temptation to dismiss people, places and food out of hand. Try harder; swallow your pride if necessary. Make an effort, go back, dig deeper. You’ll almost certainly be rewarded. Phnom Penh is a great restaurant. And after eating enough for two, my bill was just C$27.20 (Dh77). And the tea was free.
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