The awe-inspiring architecture of Angkor Wat. The monsoonal glory of Tonle Sap. The eye-watering luxury of Song Saa island. You'll find none of these at Kingdom of Rice. But you will eat and drink really well for not too much money, and come away with a new appreciation for the flavour and culture of Cambodia nonetheless.
Tucked in a drive-through bottle shop behind a pub in Mascot that this time last year was home to Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Disco, the Kingdom has a better (or at least shorter) name than its predecessor but is no less bold in its aims. Its mission, as far as I can discern, is to be the first Cambodian-Australian restaurant to field both a kick-arse booze list and a really good kids' menu. And so far it's going great guns.
With Lillia McCabe on the pans and Sophia Thach on the floor, both fresh from doing the hard yards in Cambodia on a research trip, and aided and abetted by their Cambodia-loving pals from Acme, maître d' extraordinaire Cam Fairbairn ("I'm a feeder and an enabler") and chef Mitch Orr (carbonara purist, tea enthusiast), the vibe is upbeat and easy. The cutlery is self-serve, the napkins are paper, the tablecloths are plasticised and the jars of fermented chilli, Kampot pepper and tuk trey (a mix of fish sauce, vinegar, garlic, sugar, chilli and lemon juice reminiscent of nuoc cham) on the table are complemented by free lime-leaf peanuts and jugs of jasmine tea.
A reckless friend defined the food he ate travelling Cambodia as being less intense than Thai cuisine and less fragrant than Vietnamese, "in a really good way". Certainly that impression is sustained at the Rice, where the food looks more like that of the Southeast Asia of Cambodia's neighbours than, say, Indonesian or Malaysian, without being piled sky-high with fresh herbs and lettuce or being so spicy that you pray for death.
Take prahok ktis, a gooey mixture of minced pork and fermented fish paste, coarse in texture and studded with pea eggplant. Served with raw snake beans, crinkle-cut carrot, cucumber, green tomato and apple eggplant, to the eye it resembles the incendiary Thai nam prik relishes. But on the palate it's gentle and coconut-creamy in its comforts rather than fiery – more like the lesser-seen lon dishes of central plains Thailand. I would happily eat it with everything on the menu. For a fresher, brighter opening option, svay kchey, wedges of green mango with chilli salt, can't be beat.
Both go down a treat with a bottle of the dangerously drinkable white wine made in the Savoie by Domaine Dupasquier from roussette, a grape indigenous to that part of the French Alps. The food may have changed since this site was Mr Liquor, but the old bottle-o coolroom is still crammed with well-priced treasures from all over the wine world. Donning the snow-suits to go in and poke around the shelves heaving with equal parts fine Champagne and freaky pét-nats, with chilled Beaujolais and Peu de Peau, Radikon and Koerner is as rewarding as ever, and almost a reason to visit in itself. The beer offer is significantly narrower and less interesting, but there's frosty Angkor lager in bottles if you're looking for a taste of the old country. The food is very booze-friendly, any way you slice it.
The outgoing waiters have already evolved their own Sydney shorthand for the less familiar dishes. The things grilled on skewers – shiitakes glazed with a char siu sauce, globs of caramelised pork mince – served with light numpang baguettes and a wet salad of shredded pickled green papaya, carrot and cucumber are nicknamed DIY bánh mì, while a hot, dark mess of smoked eggplant and minced chicken thatched with coriander leaves is described, not without some fairness, as Cambodian chicken baba ghanoush. (It's killer – order it and order a side of the excellent pickles to go with it.)
Grilled squid comes with the scorch and sweetness that only the magical flavour-sauce known as pork fat can bring, while fried rice that appears to be equal parts rice, turmeric and galangal has flavour for days (with possibly more of that magical flavour-sauce at work, too). The corn with garlic chives is likewise rich and rounded, given volume and depth with dried shrimp. Rice-drop noodles – thick, irregularly shaped things that the Swiss people at my table liken to Southeast Asian spätzle – are dark and saucy, tossed with spring onion and bean sprouts and topped with a fried egg. The straight rice noodles with shiitake, enoki and oyster mushrooms are better still.
Desserts are sweet and simple: star-anise caramel is the gentle twist on banana grilled in banana leaf served with sticky rice. It's the pick over the pandan waffle with grainy coconut sorbet and the hunk of roast pumpkin in coconut-tapioca.
The shell of the room is essentially the same as it was under the previous tenancy – a big, loud, high brick box with rollerdoors at each end and tables crammed in between. The neon pizza over the door is now a crab, and Merivale has swapped the wood-fired oven for a machine that juices sugar cane. Whole bunches of bananas loom here and there, epic in their greenness, while 46 large tins of Milo (an Australian invention much-loved in Cambodia, apparently) line the kitchen. The projector that screened music videos on the wall in the Dirty Italian Disco days now shows restored Cambodian films from the pre-Year Zero era, while anyone expecting the flavoursome mix of R'n'B and hip-hop that Orr and Fairbairn use to shake the room at Acme will find instead a playlist rich in soul and '70s FM classics – Dusty, Aretha and The Band. The general feel is of not trying quite so hard as the last outing – in a good way.
And the kids' menu? There's no draw-a-smile-on-Mitch-Orr section, and they're yet to feature a puzzle where you have to figure out which celebrated producers of natural wine are fibbing about their additives or how organic or biodynamic their fruit happens to be, but there are jokes (sample: "What do you call a smelly fish? A stink ray!"), and you can colour in a catfish. The dishes look very like those on the regular menu, only with the addition of chips with the grilled Rangers Valley flank steak, where the grown-ups get theirs in a sauce of black vinegar and soy with pickled Kampot pepper.
Orr reports that most of the younger visitors have opted for noodles over the chips. I'd like to think that says good things about the state of the nation and the Kingdom both.