Plodding not Walking

Longteine and Kenthao de Monteiro, founders of The Elephant Walk restaurants in Cambridge, Brookline, and Waltham grew up in the privileged class in Cambodia—he was a diplomat. They fled to safety in France when the Khmer Rouge took over their government in 1975. A diplomat without a country was unable to find work, so they established the first Cambodian restaurant in France, according to their website. In 1991, they moved to the United States to be near their daughter and opened their first Elephant Walk.

It was an exciting time for food in America. “In the 1980s and 90s, a new, worldly, haute cuisine grew up from this convergence of Asian cultures in American cities. In 1988, chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from jazz to describe the new, experimental way of cooking, whether it included Asian flavors or not,” wrote Sara Dickerman for Slate.com in 2012. The Elephant Walk restaurant focusing both on Cambodian and French flavors exemplified this fusion concept. The restaurant became popular and expanded to two other locations.

The problem with The Elephant Walk today–now run by Longteine and her  executive chef daughter Nadsa de Monteiro and her executive chef son-in-law, Gerard Lopez–is that it hasn’t evolved from its beginnings. It might have been new and exciting in 1991 but now the food and the presentation seem dated. For a pricey restaurant like this one, one expects fresh and flavorful options, not bland, tired dishes marketed as exotic. This Elephant is no longer walking, it’s plodding.

Let’s start with the menu. It’s too long. The French and Cambodian split personality coupled with vegan and gluten-free offerings overwhelmed this reviewer. It’s difficult to make satisfying choices when there is so much on offer. Can the Rouleaux–a crispy, light spring roll–stand up to a steak in a robust red wine jus? Or will it leave your palate confused and discordant?

Then, there’s the food. My meal started with stale bread. Next was the Potage Parmentier, served in a highly stylized soup bowl. This uninspiring potato soup with scallion crunch on top–tasting like crispy onions sprinkled from a can–did not warrant the pomp.

The Crêpe au Canard et Champignons sounded mouthwatering—“Warm crêpe filled with duck braised in soy-ginger and tamarind juices, with mushroom and scallion; garnished with dressed greens.” Instead, it was a delicate crepe overwhelmed by a hearty duck stew and chewy mushrooms. The greens were limp, lackluster, and not evenly dressed.

The shrimp in the Curry de Crevettes were rubbery and cold. The sauce was insipid, the red peppers and snow peas elastic not bright, and the cold rice mounded in the corner of the plate reminded me in taste and display of what used to be served in the mess hall on my father’s Navy ship.

But if S’gnao Mouan, Cambodian chicken soup with lime juice, lemongrass and basil, or Amok Royal, a fish stew with coconut milk and Khmer seasonings, is what you’re after, The Elephant Walk is the only Cambodian restaurant in the area. And overall, the Cambodian choices on the menu are more tasty then the French. The Avocat Kanthor, a timbale of diced raw tuna, avocado, and lemongrass, is comparatively fresh and light.

Despite the unevenness of the food, the two-story restaurant is always lively and crackling. There is often a wait. The crowd varies from older professorial types to families to young hipsters with ear gauges. The yellow and red boldly painted abstract paintings that decorate the walls and the giant sculpture of an elephant head that hangs over the comfortable waiting area add to the pleasing ambience. The wait staff is friendly but sometimes overwhelmed.

Maybe people come out of loyalty. The Elephant Walk is committed to the Benefit Restaurant Project. A Benefit Restaurant selects a non-profit each month to receive a percentage of its sales for that month, with a smaller percentage of sales held in reserve to assist in an emerging humanitarian crisis. They have been very generous to a friend of mine who founded a school in Cambodia—offering the restaurant for fundraisers.

Maybe they come because Cambridge has a dearth of East Asian cuisine. It’s a  safe bet for a group of diversified eaters with its myriad of options and pleasing cocktail menu and wine list. But safety doesn’t equal exciting. To move from a plod back to a walk or maybe even a stride, The Elephant Walk needs to pair down its menu, ramp up its seasoning, and take some risks. A lot has happened to the food world and diners’ expectations since 1991.

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