Siem Reap is the gateway city to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. It is a town that has grown up around tourism, and goes out of its way to accommodate the many tastes of the visitors. It is also a town awash with wine. Sometimes at decent prices, sometimes at scandalous rates of mark up.
As with almost everywhere in South East Asia that we have been, the wines have suffered form the heat of storage and travel. This tends to turn even the most hearty of reds into a thin and simple quaff, while taking any hope of freshness out of the whites. The better hotels can hold onto the wine long enough for this travel sickness to cure itself, but most of the other establishments do not have that luxury.
It is so prevalent that we met one bar owner who had sworn off all wine until he returns to visit his native France. An extreme point of view, but not altogether unrealistic. Instead of eschewing all wine, we just kept to the lower priced wines except at the very finest eateries.
Even the roadside lunch halls have wine, albeit of the more generic type. This is a nod to the tourists that flock to the temples, but also to the history of French colonization that took place only a generation or so ago.
The restaurants ranged from simple to the point of being frightening (at least from a sanitation point of view) to the most lavish. We mostly hovered around the middle.
One of our favorites is the East Indian Curry Restaurant high atop the Claremont Angkor Hotel, across the river from most of the action. The food was really very good, with a butter chicken that I will be craving for years. The aloo paratha. was fresh and as good as any we got in India. Their wine list was small but adequate, and reasonably priced. They lacked my first choice of a Riesling or other sweeter white to go with the food, so I found that dry red actually worked better than I had expected.
On the busier side of the river, but a good stone's throw from the Claremont Hotel is FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club). With a dining room that spills out into the courtyard and bright white plantation decor, it is every bit as romantic as the name suggests. The menu which is far reaching, is printed in the form of a newspaper, keeping with the theme. Their Khmer (Cambodian) Sampler is a great way to get a taste of the local food, but if you get a chance try a butter chicken pizza. OK, so I am showing an almost obsessive fondness for butter chicken, but you will be amazed how well it works as a pizza.
The wine list at FCC is pretty decent, but none too cheap. The Spanish wines went particularly well with the food and setting.
We also visited a wine bar with the name Aha which in Khmer means food, but sounds delightful to English speakers. This is a tapas joint with a few selections from the wok that can be prepared various ways. We had a fun tasting of 6 red wines, but they failed to impress me. All of the choices they had by the glass were similar in style. Shiraz and Cab based they looked and tasted pretty much the same, and since they have yet to learn my trick for marking the glasses, they were very hard to keep straight. I would have liked to see a bit more variety in the offerings.
The food was good, especially the Khmer Wedding Tapas with its dried beef, dried shrimp, pork terrine and freshly roasted cashews. The Tuna Carpaccio was less inspiring, although it was fresh and decent. The green papaya it was served with didn't pop with the fish for me, like the more traditional wasabi would have. One of my favorite tastes of the evening was a brie crepe with apples spiced with cumin. This rather savory dessert was a treat and a set of flavors I would not have thought of combining before this.
If, or I really should say when, you decide to visit the marvels of the Angkor Temples be prepared to spend more than a few nights exploring the rich gastronomical choices of Siem Reap. The traditional foods were as always the most successful, but if you stay out of the more obvious tourist traps you will likely enjoy yourself.
The night life of the town is legendary, and while we popped into the famous Angkor What bar to rub shoulders with the 20 something (and 20 wantabes) who were drinking $10 pitchers of Long Island Ice Teas, we kept to the $3 glasses of Black Label scotch all around town. It was perfect to wash down the french fries and other finger foods we ordered as we crawled our way along Pub Street. Life isn't just about fine food and great bottles of wine.
In case you were wondering, there is a Cambodian wine, but try as we may we couldn't get a hold of a bottle.