In the middle of dinner at the Elephant Walk in the South End, I receive a text from a friend at another new area restaurant. “The people here all look like they are ready for romance,” she writes. (I paraphrase.)
“The people here look like they are ready for book club,” I reply.
The Elephant Walk isn’t a place people go to find a date or a scene or be seen or be cool. They come to eat dinner, with friends, with children, maybe to celebrate a birthday with a Cambodian mule or ginger-lemon martini at the bar. It is a low-key neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood where low-key openings are rare. It just happens to be a neighborhood restaurant serving Cambodian and French fusion fare rather than roast chicken and burgers. Maybe that’s why it’s so busy on a Friday night. I once saw a 7-year-old at B&G order a dozen oysters, specifying the varieties she preferred. Even the South End’s kids want more than American comfort food.
This space was previously gastropub BoMa, and before that Indian restaurant Bombay Club. Neither lasted long. But before that, for more than a decade, it was Pho Republique, a progenitor of the freewheeling, cocktail-slinging, Southeast Asian-influenced restaurants that are opening apace today. The location isn’t cursed. It’s just haunted by a ghost who likes lemongrass and lime.
If Pho Republique was a progenitor, Elephant Walk is the OG. The first branch of the restaurant opened in 1991 in Somerville’s Union Square, about when the average hipster denizen was wearing non-cloth diapers. (It was also one of the first local spots to emphasize gluten-free offerings, along with many vegan and vegetarian options.) Executive chef Nadsa de Monteiro's family came to the area after the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia. Father Kenthao was a diplomat; mother Longteine cared for their two daughters. Initially relocating to France, they did what so many uprooted families do: open a restaurant serving the food of their homeland. They did it again when they came to the United States. The Somerville restaurant was followed by branches in Brookline, Cambridge, and Waltham (Cambridge is still open). The South End restaurant debuted late last year.
Their story lends credence to a line at the bottom of the menu that reads: “We serve food filled with love. . .” But more important for diners is that they serve food filled with flavor. Most things on the menu are available as demi plats, ideal for experiencing the restaurant’s full range.
Rouleaux are Cambodia’s version of spring rolls, and it’s hard not to inhale the excellent version at Elephant Walk. The fried rice paper wraps have a compelling texture, crisp then chewy. Filled with ground pork and noodles, they are served with greens and fresh herbs. The dipping sauce tuk trey — traditionally made with prahok, or fermented fish sauce, along with lime, garlic, and peanuts — lends distinctive Cambodian flavor to the dish.
Nataing is another Elephant Walk essential — a sort of rough dip made from ground pork with coconut milk, peanuts, and garlic, the flavors round and warm. Rice cakes are the vehicle for conveying this goodness into your mouth. The flavor is neutral but the crunch is a perfect complement. B’baw mouan is a rice soup that is simultaneously soothing and reinvigorating, heady with chicken broth and fried garlic. And if you’ve ever been confused about the concept of umami, take a deep dive with duck braised in soy, ginger, and tamarind, served with mushrooms and thin-sliced raw snow peas over polenta. It is deeply savory and delicious.
On the opposite pole, salads are refreshing tangles of vegetables, herbs, and tuk trey — from the salade Cambodgienne (cabbage slaw with chicken) to the nyoum sarai (kelp noodles, shrimp, shallots, peanuts, mint and basil, and chiles). It would be hard to ask for a better warm-weather lunch.
Main courses are divided into three categories. They aren’t always as well executed as the starters. There is traditional Cambodian fare, such as loc lac, a dish even an American steakaholic could love. Peppery beef tenderloin is cooked so the marinade caramelizes, served with lime-garlic dipping sauce. It’s sauteed a bit too long, however, and the beef is dry. Mee siem features rice noodles in a savory sauce made from salted soy beans, a medley of flavors and textures, with bits of pork belly, garlic and chiles, pickled shallots, sprouts, and red pepper, topped with a crown of fluffy omelet strips.
And then there are riffs on both French and Cambodian fare. Under the category “plats du chef a la francaise” are the likes of tender beef tournedos wrapped in bacon, served with mushrooms and potatoes in cream sauce, along with asparagus and shallot confit. It’s as rich as it sounds. Seared tuna, rare at the center, is bathed in red and green chile cream sauces, accompanied by crisp triangular ravioli filled with pear. It’s successful fusion, the sweet and spicy flavors coming together naturally.
Cambodian-inspired inventions include tender braised short ribs, suffused with the flavors of tamarind, ginger, chile, and soy, served with greasy, cooked-too-long garlic noodles and pickled cucumber. It’s almost great. There is a light vegetable curry, generously infused with ginger, and a lackluster grilled trout served with wonderfully fragrant wild lime rice.
Dessert brings passion fruit mousse in a crisp, cup-shaped almond cookie, or lemon cake layered with lemon custard cream, served with lemon sorbet. These bright flavors work well at the end of the meal. A chocolate-caramel cake has more sugar, less personality.
Also good with this kind of food: beer. The locals are here, from Jack’s Abby to Pretty Things and more. There is also the crisp German Rothaus Pils Tannenzapfle and a winey cider from Normandy’s Eric Bordelet. The wine list includes natural pairings for the French side of the menu — Sancerres, Bordeaux — but servers are able to make apt suggestions for Cambodian fare, too.
And it really is the staff who makes a meal at the South End Elephant Walk so pleasant. They are so fun and friendly, we want to invite them to join us.
It’s difficult to stay in business this long, to keep a concept fresh. Longtime Bostonians know the Elephant Walk well. It’s worth a revisit. And this new location should bring in the fresh audience de Monteiro and crew deserve.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.