Iâ€™d started my day with a heartening trip down Victoria Street in Richmond: noodle soup breakfast; harassing local Vietnamese grocers for Khmer ingredients; and an unexpected and typically Cambodian street food snack. There exists a good potential to cook â€œauthenticâ€ Cambodian food in Melbourne. Youâ€™d need a hook up into the underground Cambodian expat network so that you could secure the correct dried and fermented fishes, but apart from that, almost all the right ingredients are there, some of which are fresher than those that youâ€™d see in your average Cambodian market. I had been trying to lower my expectations when approaching Bopha Devi, Melbourneâ€™s sole Cambodian restaurant in the inner city, but the signs on Victoria Street had put me in a positive mood.
Bopha Devi has had a fistful of favourable reviews in the Melbourne food press. If you hadnâ€™t already gathered, this isnâ€™t going to be one of them.
The fish amok (A$26.90, US$21.50) was an exercise in disillusionment. It bore a basic resemblance to fish amok in that it contained some sort of fish and a banana leaf. Apart from that I would hazard a guess that the other two ingredients were Mae Ploy brand green Thai curry paste and a full can of coconut cream. When youâ€™re charging this much for an amok and have all the ingredients at your disposal only kilometres away, there really isnâ€™t any excuse for obliterating the soul of the dish.
Somlah Machou Kroueng with Fish (A$18.90) had the slightest touch of lemongrass and sour tamarind water but could more correctly be labelled â€œonion and capsicum soupâ€, as could the Char Kroueng (A$18.90) be labelled â€œonion and capsicum soup, hold the soupâ€. The rubbery tofu versions of each made me sorry for the vegetarians on my table; more sorry than I am that they miss out on the glory of bacon.
I was hoping that the Beef Salad (plear sach ko, A$15.90) would come marinated in lime juice, jam-packed with sliced lemongrass and raw, as it does when one throws caution to the wind and opens their intestinal tract to parasites in Cambodia. It didnâ€™t. Dried Shrimp Salad (A$13.90) had desiccated shrimp aplenty and masses of shredded carrot which hid a scant few slivers of white vegetable that may have been the advertised green papaya but by this stage, I was feeling too jaded to ask.
The interior was pleasantly haute-Asian: red lanterns, muted but tasteful wallpaper, a Russian Market antiquity on one wall, footstool-sized cube seating that the Herald-Sunâ€™s Stephen Downes complained about. The staff were welcoming although Iâ€™m unsure whether to lay the blame on the staff or on the chef that our waiter had to visit the kitchen when I asked if anything contained prahok, Cambodiaâ€™s national fish condiment. Nothing did.
In Cambodia, Princess Bopha Devi is best known for being the former King Sihanoukâ€™s wayward daughter. Educated as a ballerina in France, the princess emulated the other princes by taking a succession of beautiful lovers but unlike the princes, this was much to the dismay of Sihanouk who once labelled her a â€œwhoreâ€. It makes for an interesting choice of name for a restaurant: Cambodians would more likely associate Bopha Devi with Sihanoukâ€™s comments or her more recent political career as Minister for Culture. If the food had been better, Iâ€™d rant about the clash of feminism, modernity and tradition that the name embodies, and the difficulties of reconciling a modern education with the demands of Cambodian royal life. But it wasnâ€™t.
Location: 27 Rakaia Way, New Quay, Melbourne (Australia). www.bophadevi.com.