Taiwan is becoming closer to South East Asia. I don’t mean that Taiwan is geographically moving, but there is greater intermarriage, investment, business links, and increasingly, fantastic South East Asian derived restaurants opening in Taipei and elsewhere on the island. I-Chun Liu introduces us to the romance of Chamkar, a Cambodian-style vegetarian restaurant that is so good, one of its patrons fell in love with its French chef and owner. And by the sounds of it, I-Chun has fallen under the spell of Chamkar as well.
There are vegetarian outlets galore in Taipei, ranging from pay-by-weight buffet eateries to high-end kaiseki-style restaurants. However, most cannot run away from the use of processed soy products (mock meat), deep-frying, MSG and heavy seasoning to make up for the perceived blandness in meat-free dishes.
Weary of run of the mill offerings, I was pleased to discover Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant about two years ago. I am not a vegetarian, but I do enjoy healthy and tasty food using fresh ingredients, herbs and spices. I go there to detox once a week since a vegetarian diet is known to lower blood cholesterol.
Chamkar means “garden” in Khmer. The first Chamkar restaurant was set up by French owner, Nicolas Devaux, in Cambodia. As the story goes, a Taiwanese tourist was so smitten by the food served at his Cambodian restaurant that she faithfully showed up every day. Romance soon blossomed, leading to Devaux becoming a Taiwan son-in-law and opening the second Chamkar in Taipei in 2011. Thanks to his wife, we now get to enjoy distinctive vegetarian fare without having to fly all the way to Cambodia.
Upon entering the spacious restaurant, you are greeted by the citrus aroma of lemongrass essential oil wafting in the air. Elegant sculptures dot the walls and the use of dark wood furniture creates a cosy feel. Some of the restaurant’s unique crockery are custom made by Devaux’s sister-in-law, who is a potter.
Chamkar serves honest-to-goodness food where the ingredients are given centre stage. According to the owner-chef, Cambodian food is closer to Thai cuisine, though less spicy and slightly sweeter. He uses organic vegetables where possible and palm sugar in his cooking. French influences are also present in some of the dishes, like the green olive tapenade and crème brûlée.
For starters, you cannot go wrong with the wedding day dip (NT$130). A creamy mushroom and coconut dip with toasted peanuts and red chillies to go along with French bread, the synergistic flavours make this a must-order dish for my family.
Another starter I recommend is the fresh spring rolls (NT$150), which contain cucumber, carrot, lettuce, fresh herbs, toasted coconut flakes, black sesame seeds and served with a sweet coconut and peanut sauce. Do not dismiss this as mere rabbit food! It is refreshingly delicious and makes a wonderful summer appetiser.
For mains, my favourite is stir fried pumpkin and pineapple (NT$220). The rich curry paste infused with lemongrass, coconut milk, plus toasted peanuts, fried shallots and fresh herbs tossed in make this unusual combination oh-so-yummy! Organic brown rice is served with all main dishes, except pasta.
Chamkar’s stir-fried eggplant with tofu and basil (NT$240) will change your perception of greasy eggplant dishes at other Taiwanese vegetarian restaurants. Here, the eggplant is steamed first rather than deep-fried. Tofu crumbles take the place of minced meat and the savoury taste comes from soy sauce, garlic and basil. The water bamboo and green veggies in creamy sauce (NT$270) may be more of an acquired taste as the spices (cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and fenugreek) in the cream sauce can come across as a little overpowering for the uninitiated.
As Devaux just opened another restaurant in Siem Reap, he has to fly often to Cambodia to oversee his new business, so he has decided to operate the Taipei restaurant during weekends with effect from May. Group and special event bookings (包場) on weekdays are by reservation only. The menu is updated regularly so customers can look forward to trying Devaux’s latest creations.
[Taiwanxifu note: I like the look of the ‘big slice of cake!’]
Address: 7, Lane 50, Zhongcheng Road Section 2, Taipei (located in a lane opposite Takashimaya)
Tel: (02) 2838-3400; 0918-835-706
Open: Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 am to 2.30pm and 5:30pm to 9.30pm
Note: Cash only
Reviewed by I-Chun Liu