ANGKOR | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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ANGKOR

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Angkor sits in a humble shopping strip, across from a garishly lit Sunoco and proximate to the Noble Manor bowling alley. Yet once inside, a diner will find that the plastic hub-bub of the Noblestown Road commercial corridor recedes and the quiet charm of this restaurant prevails. While it's not as resplendent as its ancient Cambodian temple namesake, the owners of this establishment have taken a flat, boxy space and transformed it into an elegant setting accented with traditional Southeast Asian artwork and motifs. There is a stylized wooden frieze near the ceiling; the ceiling itself has been adorned with long panels of curved wood, suggesting regional architecture. Likewise the doorways have been reconfigured, transformed from prosaic wallboard-defined rectangles into graceful and fanciful archways.

Once settled at our table -- dressed in forest green and complemented by a vase of flowers the base of which was supported by tiny elephants -- we took some time to peruse the lengthy, and detailed, menu. Angkor is the newest sibling to the Downtown restaurants Phnom Penh and Lemongrass, but offers a much wider selection of dishes. How to choose from amongst so many unusual offerings: ban chhev (a meat- and vegetable-filled crepe); lock lack (bite-sized portions of beef tenderloin marinated in a classic Cambodian dressing); samlor ktiss manors (spare ribs simmered in a coconut and pineapple sauce); haw mook (orange roughy steamed in lemongrass and coconut milk); or saramann (slow roasted beef chunks in a spicy sweet sauce). There are also a number of specifically vegetarian entrees, such as Japanese eggplant, green beans, and vegetable medleys cooked in an assortment of sauces and curries.

We began with na-taings ($4.95) -- five Cambodian rice crackers with a bowl of warm peanut sauce mixed with coconut milk and ground pork topping. The 3-inch-wide squares of cracker are made from compressed small puffed rice -- closer to a Rice Krispies treat than the larger rice cakes we eat as snacks. The crackers were quite crisp, and thus could support quite a bit of the tasty meat sauce.

The na-taings were followed by a soup and a salad. The "Angkor healthy soup" ($3.50) was a seasoned chicken broth packed with smoked fish, zucchini, spinach, straw mushrooms and taro root that tasted mostly of the fish, but certainly seemed healthy with all those vegetables. The green papaya salad ($5.95) was sublime: shrimp and portions of chicken were mixed into large nest of shredded papaya and carrots seasoned with fresh basil and mint, hot peppers, and cherry tomatoes in a lime dressing. Each mouthful was tangy sweet and spicy, crunchy and soft, and always refreshing.

For my entree, after much debate, I finally chose the bei moarn chamboy ($11.95) -- steamed chicken over rice topped with a spicy sauce of chopped garlic, green onions and red peppers. A substantial portion of it arrived served atop a salad of lettuce, parsley and cucumber discs, and accented by a flower carved from carrots. I stared warily at what were many cloves-worth of minced garlic covering the chicken, but my trepidation was unfounded. The garlic did not overpower, and the flavor of the chicken prevailed. (This selection was denoted "hot and spicy" on the menu, and it was agreeably so.) This dish also came with a small bowl of sweet, peppery vinegar. My chicken and rice seemed amply enlivened by the garlic topping, so instead I dipped my cucumbers and carrot pieces in this condiment.

My companion investigated one of the curries, panang curry with beef ($9.95). In a rich, brown sauce sweet with coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves (a favorite accent of mine that imparts a wonderful sweet tang) sat tender strips of meat, red and green peppers, and peas. My professional sampling turned into serious cross-consuming, as I couldn't decide which entree I liked more. Fortunately, such dishes are conducive to sharing.

Finally, we found room for just one of the many listed desserts. The "rainbow cake" we chose was enough for two: four 3-inch cubes of rice cake layered in colorful strata that went from red to orange to yellow to white, like a tequila sunrise cocktail compressed into a wee block. The cake was served warm, and was moist with sweet coconut milk.

As we left, I took a paper copy of the menu. Already, I can't decide what I want to have when I return. * * *

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