In a town that seems to have no shortage of training restaurants, Spoons has been open for less that two months but is already setting itself apart. The menu is tightly constructed, with just a handful of appetizers, mains, and desserts. The chef, Mengly Mork, draws inspiration from Cambodian street food, incorporating popular favorites in an upscale, fusion style.
Siem Reap has at least a dozen training restaurants that aim to give disadvantaged Cambodia students skills that will allow them to pursue a career in the hospitality industry. The restaurants are generally run by NGOs that offer students English lessons plus employment and life-skills training before letting them work in the NGO’s restaurant. This model has had varying degrees of success around town, with the most effective restaurants, including Haven and Sister Srey and to a lesser degree, Marum, offering excellent food and service. Other training cafes offer same-same dishes at inflated prices with abominable service.
I was happy to see that Spoons is firmly in the first camp, due in no small part to the very involved Western and Japanese management team, who regularly try the food to make sure it’s up to snuff and overseeing the kitchen and front-of-house staff. This may not seem like a big deal, but when employees who have little restaurant experience — both in terms of employment or dining — are left to fend for themselves, standards often fall.
Spoons Cafe is part of the EGBOK (Everything’s Gonna Be OK) NGO. I’ve given up trying to judge which of the many organizations in in Siem Reap are legitimately “good,” but the EGBOK model seems like a sensible one — they have a limited scope and focus entirely on hospitality training. The program for students is a year long, divided into three modules that cover hospitality, life skills, and employment training. The aim to train 45 students per year, and the first batch are already working the Spoons kitchen, while others train for future work as front-of-house staff.
We tried several dishes on a recent visit, and were impressed by Chef Mengly (known to his friends as “Peanut”), both in terms of enthusiasm and creativity. Mengly doesn’t shy away from using traditional Cambodian flavors including prahok in his dishes, a brave move in a town filled with tourist restaurants that completely avoid prahok, the defining ingredient in authentic Cambodian food. As such, the dishes at Spoons have an authentic flavor, even if they are prepared in a more high-end style than you’ll find at popular street stalls.
I particularly liked our starters, a grilled chicken skewer served with a perfect, pungent green mango salad, and num krok, a sweet and savory green onion and coconut crispy dumpling. The num krok was similar to what you can get at the local markets, but infinitely better, as the street food version is often unseasoned and almost completely tasteless. Our mains didn’t quite hit the mark but were still very good, and as the place is still getting their feet, I’m confident that they will iron out the kinks. I’d like to see a few more standard things on the menu — a burger is always appreciated — but overall, was happy with the menu despite the fact that it was small.
We also enjoyed the desserts, particularly the coconut panna cotta with black rice that had been fermented until there was a delicious alcoholic tingle. The menu also has options for vegetarians and pescatarians.
Even though Spoons is new, their menu has already placed them among the better training restaurants in Siem Reap. I’m going to keep an eye on them, because chef Mengly clearly has potential.