With so many new restaurants to explore, The Improper doesn’t often rereview old standbys. We made an exception for the Elephant Walk South End, the fifth incarnation of a Cambodian/French concept that debuted in Somerville nearly 25 years ago and still has a surviving sibling near Porter Square. In the early ’90s, a menu with Khmer cuisine on one side, French on the other and some fusion in between, served with fine-dining flair, felt revolutionary. More than two decades on and newly moved into the thick of the revitalized South End dining scene, how well does that blueprint hold up?
The Elephant Walk always traced its dual nature to its chefs’ Cambodian roots, where by ancestry and tradition they straddled two cuisines. Not coincidentally, familiar French dishes provided a safety net for Americans who in those less-adventurous times found Khmer food mysterious, even frightening. Today, that European accent is still welcome in the form of excellent bread with oil and shallots, an extensive wine list and good desserts. But the menu hasn’t stood still. Gluten-free dishes are now highlighted. Half-portions of Cambodian dishes enable diners to order in more traditional Khmer family style. Perhaps reflecting Thai cuisine’s popularity, condiments of chili/garlic sauce and habanero sauce are now offered (though Cambodian cooks favor black pepper for heat).
What hasn’t changed is the lovely comforts of Khmer dishes like rouleaux ($5/$10), crisp pork spring rolls to wrap in lettuce leaves with sprouts, basil and mint, then dip in tuk trey (Cambodia’s favorite hot/sour/salty/sweet table sauce). Nataing ($6/$9) is still a sweet, mild coconut-milk curry of ground pork for spooning over crisp rice cakes. B’baw mouan ($6/$9) remains a soothing congee with chicken breast and the welcome smack of fried garlic. Soupe Phnom-Penh ($6/$9) still reads like Southeast Asian ramen with a leaner broth, pork belly slices and fierce fried garlic. Salade cambodgienne ($6/$10) is ever the fabulous, vibrant slaw of cabbage, carrots, chicken breast, red pepper and onion dressed with crushed peanuts, fresh herbs and tuk trey.
Timid patrons may still resort to French dishes, but those aren’t the kitchen’s long suit. Croustillants de polenta ($12/$18) is a workmanlike rendition of crisped, Parmesan-laced polenta with grill-charred slices of zucchini and chickpea/tomato ragout. But coq au vin blanc ($15/$24), bone-in chicken braised in white wine with bacon, mushrooms and onions, suffers from badly overcooked noodles. Bavette à l’échalotte ($25), a grilled flat-iron steak with Bordelaise sauce and frites, is perfectly adequate.
Meanwhile, mee siem ($11/$17), rice noodles with tofu, pork and crisp vegetables garnished with sliced omelet, sings in a salty/sweet/garlicky sauce. Loc lac ($14/$22) nails the classic Khmer caramel sauce with garlic, soy and copious black pepper, but the lean beef tenderloin cubes end up slightly dry, needing their lime/garlic dip. Keing m’noa ($13/$21) makes a better choice of cut with pork shoulder for its terrific coconut-milk curry with pineapple and lime leaves: It’s coarse-grained yet tender, slightly fatty and delicious.
Fine French desserts remain real assets, as in le pèché au chocolat ($8.50), a super-rich flourless chocolate truffle cake with a squiggle of nicely acidic raspberry coulis. Mousse aux fruits de la passion ($8) is lighter, with citrusy passion fruit mousse served in an almond lace cup flanked with rum-soaked pineapple chunks.
The already-humming bar features craft-leaning cocktails like On the Boulevard ($12)—think a rye-based Negroni—and the Negroni bianco ($12), the Negroni’s albino cousin. (Ironically, their traditional Negroni needs work.) The wine list is consistently rewarding, with more than 20 options by the glass ($8-$13) and more than 60 by the bottle ($36-$90, most under $50). Nicely priced whites like the 2012 Weingut Spater-Veit Piesporter Grafenberg Riesling Kabinett ($10/$39), a crackly, off-dry Mosel, work beautifully with the Khmer dishes, while affordable reds like the 2010 Château de la Selve “Palissaire” ($8/$32), a soft, quaffable Rhône merlot blend, ably suit the French fare. Easier still with both cuisines are the beers, including a dozen drafts ($6-$8), mostly American micros, and five bottles ($4-$5.50), including China’s Tsingtao and Thailand’s Singha, both exceptional with Khmer dishes.
The handsome room, offering familiar bistro accents of exposed infrastructure and brick, is lively without being too loud for conversation; service is reasonably polished and eminently patient with newbies. If there’s fault to find with this venerable formula, it’s that modern diners are more open than ever to funky, fermented flavors, from smelly cheeses to cultured dairy drinks, from kombucha to kimchi. At humbler Khmer joints in Revere and Lowell, chefs make liberal use of fish sauce, shrimp paste and especially prahok, the assertive fermented fish paste that is the cuisine’s most distinctive hallmark. At the Elephant Walk, those redolent accents are muted to near-invisibility. Maybe if it starts offering those more challenging flavors as an option, the Elephant Walk can once again feel like a cool, daring choice for diners. But in 2015, its bowdlerized take on Cambodian food, while admittedly still delectable, feels a bit tame.
-Rouleaux with pork
-Le pèché au chocolat
Hours: Lunch, Thu.-Fri., 11:30 am-4 pm; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 11:30 am-4 pm; dinner, Sun.-Wed., 4-10:30 pm, Thu.-Sat., 4-11:30 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces
Liquor: Full bar
The Elephant Walk 1415 Washington St., Boston (617-247-1500) elephantwalk.com