We all have that take-me-home food, that one dish that transports us right back to mum’s kitchen; our most favourtie of childhood favourites. If we manage to discover this food abroad then it can send us absolutely ga-ga; like junkies needing to scratch an itch, we need a regular fix to get the monkey off our backs.
For me, it is Wiener Schnitzel now, I have no idea why as it has absolutely nothing to do with my ancestry or heritage but, from a very early age I loved it. I’ve had a few Schnitzels in this city, some good, some terrible, mostly ho-hum. However, there is one place, a little out of the way and off the more well-trodden culinary paths, a place that doesn’t advertise itself much, because it has been here for so long it’s become an institution with the old Asia hands. It was the first of its kind during Phnom Penh’s modern renaissance and it has been the best of its kind ever since. We are talking pork here, not chicken nor veal as sadly, good, proper veal is virtually impossible to find here in the Kingdom.
Switzerland and Cambodia share a strong connection, Doctor Beat Richner who built and continues to be the driving force behind the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals hails from Switzerland and Cambodia’s greatest architect of the modern era, Vann Molyvann spent a great deal of time there whilst in exile and is married to Swiss compatriot Madam Trudy Vann.
Tell, Swiss restaurant, is indeed an institution in Phnom Penh; tucked into a back street behind Raffles Hotel, it is where I have to go at least once a month for my Schnitzel ‘fix’, for me, no one else in the Penh comes even close to it for authenticity and quality.
Perfect schnitzel is pounded lean and then left to ‘salt’ for a while, flour is then rubbed into every nook and cranny -all done to draw the moisture to the surface- then a quick egg wash and well coated with fresh crumbs, no seasoning. Once crumbed, the fillet is ‘worried’ in the pan and as the moisture between the protein and the covering begins to steam it lifts and gently creases the crumb coating; this is just one of the many secrets of a perfect schnitzel, Tell of course knows this very well, its owner, Urs Hauser has been flipping Schnitzels here in Phnom Penh since last century, (1999).
There are also a few regional variants on the classic Schnitzel here, such as the Jaeger-schnitzel (hunter’s schnitzel) which comes with a mushroom sauce and the Holstein Schnitzel which is topped with 2 fried eggs. Tell is also famous with expats and locals for many other great Swiss, Bavarian and Austro-Germanic dishes, such as its legendary pork knuckle, its fondues, casseroles, raclette, sauerkraut, sausages, smoked meats, apple strudel and its German beers.
Then there are the special dishes like the ‘Lumberjack’s Dinner’, breaded cervelat sausages, on creamed spinach with fried potato, bacon and egg. The ‘Mountain Casserole’, the ‘Sausage Lovers Pan’ which has no less than eight different types of sausages and the gargantuan ‘Oktoberfest Pan’ which has pork knuckle, pork loin, sausages, bacon, dumplings and just about everything else you’d need to get through a long winter in the Alps!
Mostly Swiss Germanic food, there is also a smattering of broader European favourties such as a goulash and a stroganoff, there is a nod to Switzerland’s Italian quarter with Pasta and Pizzas and the French quarter gets a look in with escargot. There are imported steaks, a selection of seafood dishes, chicken and duck.
The salads too are great but, nobody is coming here to lose weight. The food is hearty and wholesome; whatever it might lack in finesse it more than makes up for with its serving sizes: portions are of the XL to XXL variety, the ambient noise of belt notches straining against belt buckles is tangible throughout the meal.
Set in a large old house with a garden and an outside courtyard, the interior looks like a Swiss Chalet with exposed heavy wooden beams and heavy wooden furniture and there is more than a hint of Bavarian Beer Hall about the courtyard setting. There is an ‘as you like it’ kind of feel to the place, an unhurried charm in a sleepy, older part of town. Tell could not be more authentic if it had a few cows wondering around the garden with large bells around their necks and the waitresses yodeled your order to the kitchen.
Prices at Tell are extremely user friendly, around $4.50 to $8 for starters, soups and salads. The fondues run in two models: cheese or cheese with air dried beef and smoked ham -both come in two sizes and range from $18.50 to $30.50. Sausages plates are around $9 with the big sharing dishes at $20 to $30 dollars. The Schnitzels are ridiculously cheap at only $7 to $8. Service is friendly and the atmosphere is convivial and relaxed.
13 Street 90, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Tel: 023 430 650.
11am to 2pm and 5pm to 10.30pm 7 days per week
An edited version of this article appeared in the Khmer Times Newspaper