Haven got its name because it’s a social-enterprise restaurant that offers training and safe shelter to disadvantaged young Cambodians. But it’s a haven for diners as well, providing both well-made Western favorites and some pretty authentic Cambodian specialties, using many organic, locally produced ingredients and adhering to international food safety standards. This is food you can feel good about in just about every way.
The restaurant was started by a trio of Swiss expats who wanted to create opportunities for Cambodian youth to learn English and gain skills that would allow them to thrive in the country’s growing hospitality industry.
They’ve (sort of) recently moved to a larger space into a traditional Khmer wooden house in the Wat Damnak area of Siem Reap that they’ve attractively updated with red and turquoise accents. Inside, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the strains of Depeche Mode and other 80s synth-driven classics.
There’s also covered seating outdoors, in a lush garden setting where you can enjoy the tropical foliage without being at risk of being caught in one of Cambodia’s flash downpours. There’s also stylish indoor seating cooled by fans and offering views of the busy kitchen.
Too many training restaurants seem to hope that customers’ philanthropic sentiments will lead them to overlook chaotic service and mediocre food. Haven holds itself to a higher standard. The staff know what they’re doing, at least most of the time, and the food is both delicious and, on the Khmer side of the menu, loyal to Cambodian culinary tradition.
Standouts include the crunchy banana flower salad, the rich Khmer amok, and the deliciously piquant samlor michu (chicken morning-glory soup). The usually tourist restaurant take on the latter dish can be bland, but not Haven’s version. “It’s spicy enough to make my nose run!” one of my tablemates, an old Cambodia hand, exclaimed approvingly.
For those nervous about trying local specialties, or homesick for Western flavors, Haven also offers some Swiss delicacies (schnitzel, rosti) and such First World favorites as fish and chips, crunchy salt-and-pepper calamari, and pasta in a lemon-cream sauce.
The most enthusiastically carnivorous member of our party declared Haven’s juicy bacon cheeseburger the best in Siem Reap. Our only complaint is that the portion of fries—which are excellent, McDonald’s-style, in only the best possible way—could be a little more generous, but we’ll take what we can get. There are also plenty of vegetarian options, including a pumpkin burger that sounds intriguing and a vegetarian take on amok. Some dishes can be rendered entirely vegan on request.
It’s wishful thinking to believe Cambodia’s problems could be solved if we all just indulged in enough “socially responsible” dining. But Haven does live up to its claim to be one restaurant “where helping tastes good.”