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Siem Reap & Gastronomy: A dinner at the table of History

The Grand Hôtel d'Angkor has stood in the heart of the city for almost a century. Ninety-two years to be precise. Inaugurated in 1932, the Raffles has since weathered the storms of history, experienced its share of glory and tragedy, and established itself in Siem Reap town as a true and venerable institution. One of its two restaurants, the aptly named "1932", offers a journey through time, which we decided to take.

Grand Hôtel d'Angkor
Grand Hôtel d'Angkor

Seen from the Royal Gardens, the imposing façade of the Raffles is impressive. Perceptible at first glance, its art deco influences immediately give it an old-fashioned feel, and one that is full of charm. Whether it's the typography of the letters that make up the words Grand Hôtel d'Angkor, the doormen's period uniforms or the lift made of wood and wrought ironwork, everything evokes a time when travel was a very different concept from today.

The 1932 restaurant
The 1932 restaurant

Royal recipes

Inaugurated in 2019, the restaurant, which completes the already vast range offered by the establishment, proposes a resolutely Cambodian gastronomy. The basis of its menus is directly inspired by royal cuisine. Inspired being the wrong word: The recipe was given by King Norodom Sihanouk when Raffles Singapore granted the request of the king to manage both historic properties. Another privilege: the plates and cutlery are decorated with the royal coat of arms. Even before the meal begins, the mood is set.

Pan-fried scallops with lotus salad
Pan-fried scallops with lotus salad

Under the patronage of King Monivong Sisowath

Arranged in the form of veritable time capsules, each of the four menus takes as its theme an era that was significant for Cambodia. A descriptive text sets the national historical context, while recounting the destiny of the hotel, which has been intimately linked to that of the Kingdom since its creation. Opting for the 1930's menu, we embark on the genesis of the Grand Hôtel d'Angkor, in an inter-war period marked by the rise of posh tourism, before the global maelstrom was unleashed.

Socheata, resident sommelier at 1932
Socheata, resident sommelier at 1932

Socheata, the lady of wine

Socheata, the resident sommelier, introduces the menu while recounting a few historical anecdotes. Looking after more than two hundred bottles, the centrepiece of which is a 1970 Château Petrus, this woman of heart and passion is inexhaustible when it comes to her wines. Terroirs, grape varieties and winegrowers hold no secrets for this self-taught winemaker, who has won several awards. "There are no sommelier schools in Cambodia. It was the sommeliers at the Raffles, the sales people, the books, but also our guests who taught me everything I know now", declares Socheata in her cellar, radiant amidst walls lined with bottles. On a table rests a copy of the rare and precious "Le nez du Vin", by Jean Lenoir, synthesising in its little vials most of the aromas exhaled by the divine nectar. When it comes to food and wine pairing, we know we're in good hands.

A chef's smile

After visiting the cellar, the return to the table promises new culinary adventures. Between the steamed fish and the grilled lamb chop, Sous Chef Dorn Doeurt comes to check that the meal is going well. This man with the unforgettable smile presents his dishes with pride mixed with a hint of apprehension: his new menus have only just been developed. A graduate of the very first class of the Paul Dubrule hotel and restaurant school, the man nicknamed "Chef DD" was only an intern at Raffles for a month in 2022. He then came back in October of 2019 as Executive Sous Chef.

The chef reveals himself to be passionate about his profession, recounting the specific nature of Cambodian spices and the art of preparing them, the richness of Khmer gastronomy, from the countryside to the royal tables, and confiding that his favourite dishes are lobster soup and Amok Trey. Excusing himself with a final burst of laughter, DD leaves to join his team in the kitchen, which totals 35 people, a veritable small army to manage.

Dorn Doeurt, aka "Chef DD": Cambodian gastronomy with a broad smile
Dorn Doeurt, aka "Chef DD": Cambodian gastronomy with a broad smile

Showcasing the best of Cambodian gastronomy

It would certainly be futile to try and describe the six dishes that, one after the other, make this dinner an exceptional meal. That's precisely the point, as Dorn Doeurt explains: "I'm from Siem Reap, and all my family cook. Although Cambodian gastronomy can reach great heights, it has to be said that it is far less well known than that of neighbouring countries. Many of the people sitting around us are discovering local flavours for the first time. So we have a duty to set the bar very, very high".

Pumpkin custard with a glass of porto
Pumpkin custard with a glass of porto

Back to the 1930s

Before leaving the table and finishing a glass of port, let's summon up the spirit of the 1930s for a moment. After all, it's the spirit that has guided our menu. It was at the dawn of this decade that the first stones of the Grand Hôtel d'Angkor were laid, under the watchful eye of architect and town planner Ernest Hébrard, who was also responsible for planning the streets of Hanoi, the Louis Finot Museum and the Church of the Martyrs in the same city. The Grand Hôtel was based on some of the codes of Indochinese architecture, but nevertheless resembled a palace on the Riviera, just a few kilometres from Angkor Wat. At this time, despite the aftershocks of the 1929 crisis, a form of chic tourism was developing, fuelled by an unquenchable thirst for exoticism. Mouhot's early accounts were followed by increasingly detailed writings about an Angkorian civilisation still shrouded in a mysterious aura. In 1931, the organisers of the Colonial Exhibition had no hesitation in recreating part of Angkor Wat from scratch, to the delight of the eight million visitors. Some, eager to learn more, crossed oceans to come and admire the temple and the hundred or so other monuments that surround it.

The Angkor Grand Hotel in the 1930s
The Angkor Grand Hotel in the 1930s

The Grand Hotel, a destiny fused with History

The town of Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples, was only a modest village at the time, with limited accommodation on offer. The archives, which are surprisingly accurate on this subject, reveal an average of three thousand visitors a year, taking the sea route or the new airlines, which were still in their infancy. Unfortunately, the jungle-ridden ruins were not the only attraction for the first tourists, who were also able to indulge in gigantic hunting parties. Adventurers, members of the Gotha, politicians and film stars (including the great Charlie Chaplin) mingled in one of the town's two hotels, the Grand Hotel and the Ruins Bungalow. Guided by the very social archaeologist Victor Goloubew, these guests left their mark on the place and popularised Angkor as a destination. A few lines should also be devoted to a certain Alfred Messner, director of the two establishments mentioned above. His management and his many initiatives to make Siem Reap a top tourist destination have helped to profoundly change the face of the town.

An invitation to indulge
An invitation to indulge

Different times, different menus

This epic era was followed by other pages of grandeur and apocalypse, involving the Grande Dame, as the Raffles is affectionately known. Flipping through the menu takes us back to the 1950s ("The Great Renaissance", a vegan menu), the 1960s ("The Golden Age", evoking a lost paradise in which hope prevailed) and, finally, the 1990s and its "Great Raffles Legacy" menu. Each of them will evoke different flavours, different palettes and different destinies. But that's another story...

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