Bopha Devi, Melbourne

I’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 “authentic” Cambodian food in Melbourne. You’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 you’d see in your average Cambodian market. I had been trying to lower my expectations when approaching Bopha Devi, Melbourne’s sole Cambodian restaurant in the inner city, but the signs on Victoria Street had put me in a positive mood.

Bopha Devi Cambodian restaurant Melbourne

Bopha Devi has had a fistful of favourable reviews in the Melbourne food press. If you hadn’t already gathered, this isn’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 you’re charging this much for an amok and have all the ingredients at your disposal only kilometres away, there really isn’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 “onion and capsicum soup”, as could the Char Kroueng (A$18.90) be labelled “onion and capsicum soup, hold the soup”. 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 didn’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-Sun’s Stephen Downes complained about. The staff were welcoming although I’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, Cambodia’s national fish condiment. Nothing did.

In Cambodia, Princess Bopha Devi is best known for being the former King Sihanouk’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 “whore”. It makes for an interesting choice of name for a restaurant: Cambodians would more likely associate Bopha Devi with Sihanouk’s comments or her more recent political career as Minister for Culture. If the food had been better, I’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 wasn’t.

Location: 27 Rakaia Way, New Quay, Melbourne (Australia).

6 thoughts on “Bopha Devi, Melbourne”

  1. I don’t think SD has been to Cambodia. It’s a funy thing here with reviewers that they can pluck a score out of the air without any knowledge of the cuisine. Only last week a friend in the business was debating this. What happens if you order the wrong thing or take the food out of context? There again I suppose I would review a Chinese restaurant and I’ve only ever been to Hong Kong for a weekend.

  2. I think the “what qualifies you to review food?” is probably one of the more interesting debates that tends to arise around food blogging any time somebody writes a bad (or vaguely controversial) review, or whenever blogging has a run in with the mainstream press.

    One of the great things about reviewing Asian food is that the different cuisines tend to be linked together. For instance, if you’ve got a good knowledge of Thai or Southern Vietnamese food, you’ll start to see where they influenced (or are influenced by) Cambodian food. I’ve only eaten Burmese food a handful of times, but I could guess where it is coming from.

    It’s not necessarily a disadvantage to have not been to a country before reviewing its cuisine. You come to it fresh, you’re not burdened with memories of what makes something “authentic” or not. It certainly helps if you’ve got an idea of the base ingredients and can at least have some level of objectivity.

  3. One might review a Chinese restaurant with their culinary experience of Chinese food at its source confined to a weekend in Hong Kong, but would seriously risk doing as good a job as Downes has done with Bopha Devi. It is not necessarily a disadvantage to have not visited the country whose food a restaurant purports to recreate, as long as you resist the urge to make pronouncements about authenticity. The Murdoch hack in question failed to resist this urge.

  4. Over at shirty food enthusiast site, Opinionated about Dining there’s a bit about the “controversy” around NYT’s Frank Bruni and “expert status”in food reviewing more generally. For anyone who doesn’t follow food reviewers as if they’re rock stars, Frank Bruni has caused a bit of a stir because his background isn’t in a life steeped in food criticism. From OAD:

    During the meal, my dining companion and I started chatting with the couple sitting at the next table. As it turned out, one of them was a restaurant critic for a major London daily (and a name I’m sure everyone would know if I published it.) We started chatting about various restaurants in Britain, and I asked for his thoughts about the Fat Duck, which had recently recieved a third Michelin star, and Anthony’s of Leeds, a restaurant that everyone in London who cared about fine dining had visited (including me and I live in New York.) He responded by telling me he hadn’t been to either one of them, that he does London exclusively for the paper, and those two restaurants are “outside of his territory”

    I have to say his answer shocked me. Here was a major London paper willing to imply they were giving readers expert dining advice, when the person giving the advice couldn’t qualify as an expert.

    Obviously, I’ll never qualify as expert because I’m born on the wrong side of the planet, away from the best pretentious wankery that food criticism has to offer.

  5. Hi, I agree that the food at Bopha Devi was appalling.. I had the Beef Skewers as an entree and Fish Amok as I was craving Amok after returning from Cambodia… It was a huge let down!!!

    (I’m Cambodian hehehe)… i see that Bopha Devi caters for the Western folks as the flavours have been dramatically TONED down…

    whereas at Purple Orchid in Springvale (Melbourne Southeastern Suburbs 25km from the city) the flavours are more authentic and with that more preferable hjehehe

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