What the local reviews claimed as one of the best Khmer restaurants in Phnom Penh, Malis certainly has a large shoe to fill. After ten months of hearing its name mentioned in many magazines and tourism guide books, I decided to try it out today.
Situated at #136, Norodom Boulevard (Tel: 023 221 022), Malis didn’t disappoint my expectation at first glance. It was described by many as a modern and high end restaurant with a lush setting and I was indeed impressed by its tasteful decor and architectural design. I wouldn’t call it modern per se as the interior designer has managed to combine traditional furniture and ornaments with a relatively modern structure.
Upon entering, there was a beautiful statue of the Buddha, beaconing peacefully from the front of a traveller’s tree. The courtyard was indeed lush and provided an atmosphere of tranquillity and calm. Since the weather is mildly cold now, it was pleasant to sit on the terrace surrounded by frangipani tree and two shallow pools filled with lotus flowers and fishes. The water that dripped gently from the frangipani leaves, a result from a heavy downpour which had just ended not too long ago, sent tiny ripples across the surface of the pools.
As soon as we settled down on a table, the waitress quickly presented us the menu accompanied by small portions of aperitif consisted of fresh passion fruit juice served in shot glasses and plates of pickled cauliflowers and carrots with a knob of spicy paste. I particularly liked the juice which was sweet and sour at the same time and had a concentrated consistency, a good indicator that it was extracted purely from the fruit.
Everything seemed to go well until we tried to order some cocktails. When my friend asked whether they offered happy hours, a common practice in most restaurants here, the waiter thought it was the name for a cocktail. After checking with the manager, he disappointed us by saying no.
When we looked at the drinks menu, there wasn’t much choice in terms of cocktails. I tried to push my luck by asking him whether they served mojitos. He replied quizzically, “Mosquitoes?” in which we inevitably responded with roars of laughter. Our shameless display of rudeness did not offend nor amuse him. He simply told us that he would check with the bartender.
After a few minutes, he returned with a huge smile on his face as he declared proudly, “Yes, Madam. We have mosquitoes.” Perhaps it was his good and earnest nature which made it hard for us to feel annoyed with what many would simply dismiss as a shortcoming.
I would say that Malis’ strengths definitely lie in the quality of its food and how they are being served. Everything was beautifully arranged and garnished. I particularly like the serving plates or rather materials.
We had the peppered scallops and skewered meat for starters. Expecting them to come in delicate portions, we were alarmed by the generous size and thought perhaps we might had been a bit too enthusiastic when ordering. According to my friend, she remembers the portions used to be much smaller.
Each scallop was small but there were probably about four pieces on each shell. They were mixed in a sauce consisted of chopped up bell peppers, onions, button mushrooms and real peppers still attached to their stalks. The sauce was really tasty; slightly sweetened with strong peppery taste. The skewered meat came with chunky pieces of pork, beef and chicken garnished with pickled green papayas. They were mildly marinated with spices and barbequed to perfection. This dish can be eaten as a main.
We ordered fish amok, fried rice with scallops wrapped in lotus leaves, sour chicken soup and deep fried soft shell craps for our main courses. Being more familiar with the fish amok in thick coconut gravy, I was pleasantly surprised by this drier version which apparently is also the authentic version.
Instead of being boiled in gravy, they were steamed on banana leaves with noni tree leaves at the bottom. Normally, the creamy version is very heavy and rich but this one was light and probably healthier. I liked how they were individually served on small plates made from coconut trees. All we needed to do was pick the plates up and eat them straight away. No mess and no stress.
As soon as the waitress unwrapped the fried rice, the delightful but subtle aroma of lotus leaves enveloped the air. The rice was unfortunately not as delightful as the unveiling experience. I thought it was a bit too watery and since we had ordered so many dishes, it was wise not to stuff up our stomach with rice. Thankfully, the soup was rather small in portion but over-compensated by a creamy texture. In fact, I don’t think they should call it a soup. Chicken gravy would have been more justifiable since there was more chicken than soup. The soft-shell crabs were not as fresh as I had hoped them to be despite being creatively served like a small hanging lantern. It came with an olive-green dipping sauce made from blended peppers, salt and lime juice.I thought it tasted too tangy and sharp.
For dessert, my friend chose the rainbow layered bean and coconut custard while I had the sticky rice with sesame paste on a pool of sago and coconut cream.The custard was very smooth and not too sweet. The beans were blended so well that you couldn’t feel the graininess and instead, the tastes of red and mung beans simply melt away on the tongue.
The sticky rice was a good representative of South East Asian dessert where sugar and salt are commonly combined together to create that interesting stimulation to the taste buds. The ultimate prize was the smooth paste made purely from black sesame seeds. I had secretly wished then that the portion could have been bigger.
Now, saving the best for last. As mentioned on my previous post, as a coffee lover, I think the ultimate litmus test to a good cup of coffee is the beans and how they are being brewed. At Malis, they serve it with a creative twist. Instead of a teaspoon, a cinnamon stick coated with caramelized sugar at the bottom tip is being used. While I slowly stirred the coffee served in a cup resembling some sort of an alabaster material, the scent of cinnamon and sugar were infused into the drink simultaneously. In all my dining experience, this by far has excited me the most.
As soon as you think it can’t get any better, Malis managed to revive what I would say, a forgotten art in gastronomy by many high end restaurants these days. A special thanks to my generous friend as I was privileged to have such an experience without having to contribute anything.
Last word though, I wouldn’t mind having more mosquitoes if the hours had been happier!
Prices: For starters and main courses, it ranges from US$7 to US$8 onwards and dessert is all priced at US$3 each.