Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dish on Dining: Battambang

Mixed Pleasures on the Way to Cambodia
850 Broadway (near 8th Street), Oakland
PH: 510.839.8815
Open Mon.–Thu., 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; closed Sundays
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

I had the urge to try a different cuisine I don’t typically eat, so I recently went for some Cambodian food. In Oakland, one of the more well-known Cambodian restaurants is Battambang on the edge of Chinatown. Hel-LO, it says “authentic Cambodian cuisine” right in the window so how bad can it be?

The first time I tried the restaurant, I had met my friend Jeanne for lunch. She brought along her two young sons, which meant we had to be a bit tame on our selections and look for more kid-friendly dishes.

We started with a plate of the Lawt ($7.25), which is the Cambodian version of crispy spring rolls. I’ve decided that every Asian country has some kind of spring roll, and it’s all done slightly differently. In Cambodia, or at least at Battambang, they come out like cute little baby spring rolls!

We got this plate of lawt where each one was maybe 2 inches in length. (You might not be able to tell in the photo because I zoomed in so close, but just look at how big the spoon is next to it.) They were served with a light vinegar dipping sauce similar to what’s served at Vietnamese restaurants. The filling was mostly ground pork and bean threads, but they were crispy and definitely a hit with the kids. (I only had one, just in case you’re wondering why I’m eating fried foods.)

We got a few dishes to share. First came the Kari Sach Tair ($10.25), a red curry made with boneless duck legs, potato, carrots and sweet basil. The curry smelled sweet and fragrant, and the duck was so deliciously tender, falling off the leg bone. I enjoyed this with the fragrant jasmine rice that I noticed always comes in a very decorative rice container in all Cambodian restaurants. (OK, I’ve only been to one other Cambodian restaurant in Berkeley years ago, but they used the same type of rice container too.)

We also tried the Battambang Noodles ($8.25), which is very similar to pad thai noodles. It was pan-fried rice noodles with strips of chicken, egg, bean sprouts, green onion in a light tamarind sauce with chopped peanuts sprinkled on top. This was a lot of noodles and quite filling.

Our final dish was a vegetarian dish so the kids would get their veggies. It was called Char Banleh ($8.25), and was supposedly sautéed asparagus, broccoli, onion, baby corn, mushrooms, green beans, bamboo shoots and tofu. But it seemed like it was primarily tofu and a few broccoli pieces. I don’t remember seeing any asparagus. It tasted like the vegetables were boiled instead of sautéed because they seemed overcooked and mushy, just like the tofu. This was my least favorite entree.

After lunch, I didn’t know if I truly got to taste authentic Cambodian cuisine, especially since we held back a bit with the kids. So I came back again, this time for dinner and this time with my friend Vera, who traveled to Cambodia two years ago. (Vera actually couldn’t remember much about the food in Cambodia, so it was kind of the blind leading the blind.)

We started with the Num Banchey ($7.25) for an appetizer. This is very close to the Bahn Xeo in Vietnam. It’s an egg crepe stuffed with chicken, bits of prawns, onion, bean sprouts and green onion. I barely tasted any of the chicken or prawns because it was stuffed with a lot of bean sprouts. And when the bean sprouts cook, they let out a lot of moisture so the num banchey tasted a bit soggy to me.

Vera had a craving for tripe so we ordered the Battambang salad ($8.25), which was sliced beef, tripe, bean sprouts (again), picked Chinese water crest, mint and peanuts in a lime dressing. (BTW, you can’t go wrong with ordering anything with the name Battambang in it.)

This was the typical refreshing salads of Southeast Asia, but I was surprised at how incredibly easy it was to eat the bits of tripe. They were tender and not at all chewy, which is the texture I usually think of when I think of eating tripe. Combined with the thinly sliced beef, this was a hearty but light salad. I totally enjoyed it.

To try to order something authentic, we looked under the house specialties and ordered the Amouk Trei ($11.25). I totally loved this dish as well. It is made up of layers of thinly sliced fish fillets stacked inside this boat made of banana leaves. Everything is steamed in a red lemongrass sauce with a slight coconut milk topping. If you’re not a fan of mushy baby food, you might not like this. And while I don’t generally go for mushy food, this was more like Asian comfort food at its finest with tender fish blending with various fragrances to create a delightful meal. This was different and interesting and I was glad I tried it.

Because I liked the curry from lunch, Vera and I also ordered the Kari Sach Chearm ($12.25), which was lamb in red curry with onion, eggplant, carrots and sweet basil. Again, I felt all the ingredients came together nicely (although the eggplant was a tad mushy, but that’s why I don’t like eggplant).

Side note: The service is pleasant and friendly although a bit neglectful at times in between dishes. And I was a bit annoyed that every time I’ve visited Battambang, there’s a tiny swarm of flies buzzing in the entrance. Not the kind of thing you want greeting you before a meal.

Despite the flies up front, the inside is clean and reminded me of a Tuscan villa with its bright yellow walls.

I suspect Cambodian food has a lot of influences from Thailand and Vietnam, which are nearby countries in that whole Southeast Asia area. While doing some reading about Cambodian food on the Web, I read descriptions of some dishes that I didn’t find in Battambang’s menu. So while some of the dishes were quite delicious (try any curry and the Amouk Trei), I don’t know if I got the full experience of Cambodian cooking. Still, Battambang offers tasty food at decent prices. You’ll never feel hungry leaving here.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (Southeast Asian flair)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Battambang on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I LOVE bahn xeo, and had no idea that Cambodian cuisine had something similar. Chez Sovan is our only well-known Cambodian restaurant in the South Bay, and I'm pretty sure they don't have a crepe on the menu. Maybe I can twist their arm to add one. ;)