We’d been urged not to review Chez Gaston by one or two regulars who loved the place the way it was, and didn’t want it frequented by trolls. But trolls don’t eat real food, we said. They live under bridges in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, feasting on passing, bloated corpses.
But as it turned out, we nearly didn’t find the place anyway. Because, like all great restaurants, it was tucked away in a hard-to-find spot. In this case, a rough neighbourhood with ludicrously random building numbers on Street 15, just off Kandal market, where you wouldn’t even park your moped, let alone expect to find French cooking of such an exceptionally high standard.
It was Saturday night and the small bistro was nearly empty, but still had bags of atmosphere. A French party was sat at the bar sipping drinks, all laughing before they’d finished a sentence, the soft hum of blues, or was it jazz, in the background.
There was no menu, or English translations – just blackboards on the brothel-red walls, giving the names of bistro classics like oeufs mimosa (devilled eggs), joue de boeuf au vin rouge (braised ox cheeks), and andouillette de Troyes (gloriously stinky sausages made from pork intestines) that a French mayor once famously said politics should be like – smell a little like shit, but not too much.
I loved the place already. It was the very antithesis of pretence and unmitigated poncery. A true bistro, not a brasserie, with simple, hearty meals and a short menu. There were seven wines of the month, and we ordered the 2007 Bordeaux for $17, which was nicely chilled and eminently drinkable. We swigged away as a basket of excellent French bread arrived, quickly followed by our starters of foie gras ($14.50) and escargots de Bourgogne ($7).
The snails were magnificent and cooked in parsley and garlic butter, which when you turned the shells over drooled into a savoury, verdant pool, with bread for the mopping. They were piping hot on a clay dish that looked like a Stone Age egg poacher, and came with an arsenal of curious tools that reminded me of that scene in Marathon Man. “Is it safe?” I don’t know, but it was bloody delicious.
The foie gras was heavenly and a hymn to the pudding-like texture, rich flavour, and oily feel of this decadent, feather-ruffling dish. It came with strips of tomato skin garnish, and two spots of stewed plum and fig puree, the perfect accompaniment to the buttery foie.
The service was excellent, and our Khmer waitress was as knowledgeable and passionate about the food, as she was insistent with her recommendations. And I felt so sorry for her when the comedy moment came, and she knocked over my wine glass, leaving the tablecloth looking like a butcher’s apron. She kept apologising over and over, and the more we made light of it, the more she seemed to despise herself.
My main of onglet a l‘echalotte ($9.50) had come highly recommended by our server – who said it was far superior to the girlie filet de boeuf ($9.50). It’s a ropey-textured cut (skirt steak in English, hanger stake in Ameriglish) from the cow’s kidney area and packed full of offal-like flavour. It was beautifully rare, which it has to be or it gets far too chewy, and was topped with a mountain of sliced shallots fried in the pan juices.
It came with cauliflower, green beans and carrot that were just the right side of crisp, and a tower of gratin dauphinoise that was beautifully creamy if a little under seasoned. The peppercorn sauce was very good, not overly spiced, and with all the richness of a good béarnaise-style base. Whoever was slaving away at the stove – presumably the owner who’d answered the phone and given us directions in French as we padded up and down Street 15 – clearly knew what they were doing.
My friend’s main of magret de canard ($9.50) was wonderful too. He’d asked for medium, and the duck breast came in pale pink slices, with the same vegetable garnish, and was full of gamey flavour. He chose red wine sauce that could have been reduced a tad more to remove the acidity, but was still good.
For afters, our waitress recommended the raw milk camembert ($3.50) – which was beautifully punchy and just starting to grow legs. And the reblochon ($3.50) had a nutty flavour, with a faint, earthy, musky taste of truffles. They were such generous portions, it would cost you more buying them from the swag bag carriers at Lucky Supermarket. Not that you’d get that quality there.
There was nothing pompous about the place at all. The owner, who looked happy and well-oiled, came through after service and shook everyone’s hand with a cheery “bon soir”. He was clutching a mysterious potion, and two saucers with what looked like a marshmallow in each. He poured a few drops in and they sprouted into white sausages. What fiendish trickery and bolts of bedevilment? We both stared.
“It same as thiz,” he said, pointing at the napkin on my lap. We wiped our faces and were engulfed in menthol. He was soon pouring us home-made strawberry vodka that was so thick it could have been happily up-ended without fear of spillage. We then moved on to Calvados, which was the perfect end to a wonderful meal.
We left with a Ready Brek glow, feeling very happy and full. The owner shook our hands again on the way out. “Did you cook the meal?” I asked. “Me! No way! She did,” he said, pointing at a pretty Khmer woman sitting on a moped. We thanked her several times until it became embarrassing. ”I wonder if she’s married,” my friend asked, as we loaded our guns and headed back out into the hood.
Chez Gaston, #76, Street 15, Phnom Penh (Tel: 077 910 945). Meal for two, including drinks and service: $70