Eight hours. That's how long it took Chhaya En, the owner and chef The Soup Spoon in Victor, to make the broth that fills the bowl in front of me. Eight hours of intense labor, starting with not much more than beef bones, vegetables, and water, and ending with a soup that is richly fragrant and consomme clear. Eight hours of roasting and sweating, simmering and skimming, to produce a superlative stock in which to float rice noodles, slices of brisket, shrimp so fresh that a talented doctor might be able to revive them, and homemade meatballs so smoothly textured that they really should be called something more elegant, like quenelles.
I finished my first bowl of En's take on pho and hungrily eyed what's left of my 7-year-old dining companion's bowl (not much, alas) and briefly considered ordering another portion. Then I remembered that I still want a cupcake. Life is full of tough choices, but as I tore into a cupcake topped with white chocolate icing and ruby-red raspberry jelly I was pretty sure I made the right one.
Victor may not seem like the obvious location for a Cambodian restaurant, but talk to En for a few moments and the logic starts to make sense. Unlike Rochester, where it has become much easier to find a decent bowl of pho over the past several years, folks in Victor — and in Ontario County in general — have far fewer options. When a coffee shop tucked away on the ground floor of an office building on Victor's Main Street closed, En and his wife, Bri, saw an opportunity to bring something new to town. And in the brief time that The Soup Spoon has been open, it seems to have caught on. Some of En's regulars include the town fire chief, and the lawyers who work upstairs from the restaurant. On one of the Saturdays that I stopped by, the clientele at the Soup Spoon was a mixture of families (kids are welcome at The Soup Spoon, and En's own 4-month-old sous chef is a frequent visitor to the restaurant), hipsters, and an older couple who were clearly trying the place for the first time.
The Soup Spoon is not a place that you will casually stumble upon, but that's part of its charm. The ground-floor location, the rough stone-work walls, the black leather chairs and relatively low ceilings give the place a clubhouse air that is instantly welcoming. It's the sort of place where you are inclined to kick back and linger far into the afternoon. That's precisely what we did on that Saturday afternoon, ordering a glass of iced Earl Grey and lavender tea as well as a pastel purple-hued Thai lime drink and settling in to the chairs to watch Olympic fencing on the big-screen TV above the fireplace. It was very much like being a guest in a good friend's house rather than at a restaurant. The experience got even cozier when, rather than delivering an order of fresh spring rolls with shrimp to our table, our waiter brought them over and quietly put them on an end table in easy reach, the food seeming to materialize there magically while we weren't looking.
En has accepted a trade-off with his cozy little coffee shop. The kitchen is miniscule, not much more than a steam table and a couple of burners along the front counter with a tiny prep area and dishwashing area behind a wall in what was probably once a closet space. For most restaurants this would be a problem, but the style of Cambodian food that En offers — along with, oddly, French onion soup and chili — lends itself to minimalist kitchens. It is, after all, street food in southeast Asia, where pho, banh mi (called num pang in Cambodia), and skewers of grilled meat are all made in street stalls and sold to folks looking to pick up a quick bite while on their way.
En's menu may be tiny, but that allows him to lavish attention on each dish, perfecting both presentation and flavor. Start with a plate of spring rolls ($3.50), the vegetables precisely and uniformly cut, the shrimp uber-fresh, the noodles snow white and perfectly cooked. Other rolls I've had fall apart at the last couple of bites, but these are so tightly made that they hold together to the end, acting as a nice scoop for the tangy sauce of coarsely ground peanuts or the sweet chili sauce with which each order is served. As I sat noshing on my roll, I noticed a family of three across the dining room getting an order of what looked like 10 of these delightful rolls delivered to their table. I was deeply envious. Of course, I had something else on the way, too: a plate of grilled beef skewers ($4.50) so shiny they looked lacquered. These were made with Seven Bridges Farms meat and marinated in lemongrass and sweet soy, a pleasant combination of sweet, salty, and intensely beefy in each bite.
But the star of the show here is En's pho ($8.50). It is far more refined in flavor and presentation than anything else called pho that you will find locally, the broth redolent of sesame, coriander, and star anise, as well as the rich aroma of slow-roasted beef bones. It almost doesn't need the generous assortment of condiments that come with it — fried garlic, sugar, mixed salt and pepper, bean sprouts, Thai basil, lemon wedges, and chopped scallions — but it's fun to play with the flavors as you eat. Add those various tastes and textures to the dish, leading up to the moment when the noodles are gone, the meatballs have long since been consumed, and only one last wide, flat Chinese-style soup spoon of the broth remains. If you can resist picking up the bowl and drinking it, you have far more restraint than I do.