Cambodian cuisine has historically been hard to find in New York City, until Lula Mae opened earlier this year (472 Myrtle Avenue, at Washington Avenue, in Clinton Hill), serving predominantly Cambodian dishes.
That’s not to say it doesn’t exist: A small Cambodian neighborhood surrounds Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage in Fordham Manor, represented by the Battambang Market, selling all manner of dried fish, fresh herbs, banana blossoms, and sacks of broken rice. We once had a Lower East Side restaurant called Cambodge, and a food truck parked on the NYU campus known as Cambodian Cuisine Torsu, both now defunct — as is our plucky Cambodian sandwich chain, Num Pang. Occasionally, you’ll find a Cambodian dish on the menus of Teochew café Bo Ky in Chinatown and on miscellaneous pan-Asian menus.
Dan San is cooking some remarkable Cambodian dishes; the chef and co-owner of Lula Mae (along with partners Mark Roof, and brothers Daniel and David Balk), had previously cooked at Nami Nori and the Tyger. Customers can see him working hard in the small kitchen that stands to one side halfway deep into the restaurant.
The front of Lula Mae has the best seats, in a crescent of tables on two levels that look out on the busy thoroughfare. That crescent feeds into a bar, where customers can sit and chat with the bartender over cocktails, beer, and wine. A line of tables follows, marching opposite the kitchen toward the bathroom. Part the curtains beyond the bathroom to discover a secret dining room, so that even when the restaurant seems hopelessly crowded, you might find seats back there.
The greatest of the chef’s creations is also one of the simplest: char kway ($8), a deep-fried linear doughnut often dipped in congee for breakfast in southern China, but also a staple of Southeast Asian cuisines. Here, brilliantly, it’s served with a knob of whipped butter with tom yum flavorings that include lemongrass, galangal, and makrut (lime leaves). The double-fat effect of fried pastry and butter is mind-bogglingly good.
Also grab a serving of three raw Massachusetts oysters on the half-shell set on ice and sluiced with shredded herbs and crunchy fried shallots — a great alternative to caustic mignonette. Then there’s a papaya salad ($16) not so different from the one found in Thai restaurants, but here fortified with tidbits of beef jerky instead of raw crab, salted egg yolk, or fermented fish.
I wasn’t so happy with the fried tofu app, which featured a wobbly pyramid of bean curd blocks with Sichuan chile sauce and tempura crumbs. The bean curd was too squishy and dull and I ended up eating the Sichuan sauce by itself. A yellowtail crudo was much better, served with a catalog of flavors and textures that included tomato salsa and bitter chicory.
The main courses were unfailingly good, including fried chicken with two seasonings, and crab fried rice scattered with tiny particles that looked like some forgotten Old World grain, but turned out to be something called tempura crunch. The best main course of all was a tie, with two dishes in contention: The elegantly simple duck salad ($32) was an expertly seared breast, skin gloriously intact in a bravura display of French technique, served with a rainbow of lettuce leaves for wrapping, fresh herbs, and tuk trey koh kong, a Cambodian dipping sauce.
The second was a simple plate of lort cha, a homemade rice noodle rolled between the palms to achieve a taper at both ends, here stir-fried with vegetables in a sweet and sticky sauce then topped with a runny fried egg. I could eat this for lunch every day.
I had one dessert on my visits: a scoop of matcha ice cream with berries and crunch. Lula Mae is already a palace of crunch: Why not go for a cocktail instead? Mine was called holiday in Cambodia ($14) which featured the fruity combination of pineapple, ginger, and lemon zapped with Cambodian rum. (Who knew it existed?) In keeping with the holiday theme, a swimmer in a Speedo hung off the side of the glass. Afterwards, I tucked it in my pocket for future use.