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Delightful Phnom Penh – Gastronomy Update

  • Written by Anonymous
  • March 6th, 2009
  • 18 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok


This time around in the Khmer capital, the tourist magazines list many new bars "with attentive staff", but also many new restaurants and spas.

The bars and restaurants are praised in beautiful words and striking pictures. When you check them, for instance the highly pretentious "Art Café", they mostly disappoint: Many reside in typical Phnom Penh row buildings (p'teach levehng); so the main room is a claustrophobic 4×16 meters with no windows on the long walls, plus a few tables out front on another 4×4 meters nano slot next to the roaring traffic. Most places also remain quite empty all through the night.

Size doesn't matter

One row house to go for anyway is the long running Tamarind on boutique road 240, around the corner from the Royal Palace. I don't know why I forgot them in my first round of Phnom Penh reviews. Phnom Penh's AsiaLifeGuide magazine dissed Tamarind in a recent issue, but according to me they serve yummy Mediterranean and North African fare and you should phone ahead for a table on the rooftop. Right there under the stars, you can even take your dinner on a romantic four poster bed. The attentive staff makes sure you don't forget why you came there.

Speaking of rooftop venues, another favorite from my last round of reviews was Nature & Sea near Wat Lanka, specialising in fish filets and fresh fruit juices. This time around, for my favorite mango-strawberry juice, they didn't have the strawberries handy. Without asking me, they mixed fresh mango juice with strawberry *jam* and additional sugar. Figure that.

Much bigger in size than Tamarind or even Nature & Sea, but not a relief is Le Jardin. The waitress in this garden café down NGO land welcomes us with such ice cold stares and slow service that we wonder what evil we did to her. Otherwise, the garden would be not only large, but actually pleasant.

Pontoon

Another exception to the sardine like 4×16 meters standard is of course relative newcomer Pontoon, where you dine on pontoons right on the river. We tried it first in December 2007 around sunset and lounge on comfy couches with a great breeze – and 100 percent beggar / hawker free! They serve up such a potent Caipirinha that after the first glass I don't know what I feel rolling – is it the water under my feet or the booze? Anyway, I have to order a second caipi, because at happy hour it's 2 for 1. I learnt this from the menu, only the waitress doesn't know and tries to charge for two separate drinks. I protest politely and get many excuses from the waitress.

In Phnom Penh, if you boycotted all the venues with wrong bills you'd starve. So I go to Pontoon for another breezy sunset hour and order another cocktail. This time the waitress informs me proudly "Until 7 pm it's 2 for one, sir!" She learnt from me. A long 15 minutes later she returns empty handed – "ice not yet arrive, sir, please wait 15 minutes more!"

On the food menu, Pontoon lists tasty Asia-terranean creations and a lot in easily snackable appetizer format. We try some real good ones, order them instantly again and when two weeks later I forgot how to order yet again, the waitress still remembers what we had a fortnight ago.

Apart from a few tourists, Pontoon sees mainly early twentyish Khmer couples who love to canoodle away on those very, very inviting and cushion-stuffed couches – even though sometimes there's a chaperone of the same age, fiercely looking the other way.

One time we have a sofa next to a steaming – and chaperone-less – Khmer couple testing the daybed's breaking point, when her mobile rings.

She gasps (in Khmer): "Yes, Mamá, I come soon, I'm on the way already… that music you hear is from the car of course…" Upon which she descends back onto her oily Khmer guy. Five minutes later they walk out, re-arranging attire, to face Mamá.

According to the waitress, a certain Steve is the owner not only of Pontoon, but also of the upmarket River House up on the riverside promenade. When we return to Pontoon in early 2009, there is newer – and still very horizontally inviting – furniture and they pump downbeat house music with the fluffiest sound system I ever heard down Khmerland. We are told there's a new manager. Is he also responsible that our first set of cocktails – Mai Tai and Lynchberg Lemonade – almost makes a teetotaler happy? We use that Happy Hour rule again and the second round of the same concoctions has considerably more potential.

Maxine's

A new alternative to Pontoon floating on the river would be Maxine's built over the river. It's on the other, much less developed side of Tonle Sap river, exactly opposite Casa Hotel on the main riverside. The tuktuk driver charges us three whopping dollars to get there, into complete touristical nowhere land across the Japanese bridge. In Phnom Penh this environment might be called suburbia, elsewhere you'd say favela. As we can't find the bar, we call the establishment by cell phone from the tuktuk. The western owner answers, has a simple description and shouts – "I'll await you on the road, watch out for a man in black suit."

And there he stands on the dusty dirt road, with his black suit more than slightly overdressed in this humble village neighborhood next to fishing families. Maxine's is just another rambling wooden family cottage on high stilts over the muddy Tonle Sap east bank. Unlike any establishment on the established riverfront gastronomy row, Maxine's faces westward, so its balcony gives us a delightful sunset across the river with reggae soundtrack and, shall I say, befitting smoke smells from the bar.

The house cocktail doesn't convince me. I don't know why exactly this place made it into Bangkok Airways' inflight mag.

We step back onto the black dusty village road hoping that a tuktuk would pass by eventually to take us back to town. And see, there stops one for us already. I expect to pay three dollars again, but after some grim haggling Norah gets down to two dollars. "Why", she says after boarding, "I am sure he is based in downtown and was just going our direction anyway. He can as well take us with him." As we pass the gas station on the downtown side of Japanese Bridge, she says, "oh look, gasoline is on a new record high".

Kandal House

The tuktuk drops us at Kandal House smack on the main riverside. Now that's just another claustrophic 4×16 row room, still this restaurant has – apart from good Italian-inspired food – a certain funk. Maybe it's because they didn't arrange all chairs and tables symmetrically? Even the waiters have a bit of personality. I also recommend them for food deliveries into the privacy and air-con cool of your hotel room: The pizzas arrive real hot, the salads crispy fresh, more than can be said about other, better known deliveries.

At Kandal House, we get a table on the pavement. Three backpackers on the table next to us befriend the street begging kids, have them sit on their laps, feed them food and let them playfully steal bags. Three staff and Norah can't believe how anyone could bond with these street kids which get more obnoxious by the minute.

One street boy tries to steal a slice of pizza from my plate, I bark him off in the last nanosecond. "Sorry", says Norah, "but with these other tourists inviting them to the table, they don't know how to behave any more." When other customers leave their table, the kids descend on the left food but first they down the rest of beer.

The change is one dollar short, so I protest politely and get many excuses from the waitress.

Cambodia Club

Then to Cambodia Club, a ground floor bar smack in the middle of the riverside tourist action, but until early 2008 a reliable source for decent cocktails, while neighboring establishments served lukeware flocculated diesel instead. From the street beggars we try to hide behind Cambodia Club's potted bushes, but then we hear it through the foliage: "Misteeeh, some moneyyyyy!"

One beggar looks unfortunate even by Phnom Penh standards: not one arm, not one leg, still somehow he keeps himself sat upright on the dirty pavement. He robs between the Cambodia Club's street side tables. My defenses crumble and I stuff some change into his shirt pocket. Before I can grab my drink again five dirty street kids cling to my bare arms: "Siiiiiir, some moneyyyyy!"

The change money is one dollar short, so I protest politely and get many excuses from Cambodia Club's waitress.

She says that a one dollar bill had fallen down to the floor after she received the change money from the cashier.

She also believes that's an explanation.

When we return to Cambodia Club in February 2009, the waitress warns us to take our preferred seats: Two Korean backpackeresses hang completely drunk over the next table. "They too sick", comments the waitress.

"You sold them too much beer", I reply to no reaction.

Now this time in early 2009, the whole river side is but a dump: It's construction only, no more promenading on the river side of the riverside road, the wind blows clouds of dust along. There is more private trash and more beggars than ever. Cambodia Club fits into the bill by now, for the first time, serving lukewarm flocculated diesel under the names of internationally known cocktails. Maybe those passed-out Korean backpackers had actually tried the "cocktails"?

Burgers with a View

Phnom Penh's Soriya shopping mall is a vacuum-shrinked, de-funned MBK, still it's air-con, clean and beggar-free. Soriya's blueish glass dome can be seen towering over several of the capital's ruler-like roads and alleys.

Just this dome is the main bonus. Inside the dome various fast food joints await, and they offer a great areal view of the inner city.

The dome forms the 5th to 7th floor of Soriya mall, and few of central Phnom Penh's other buildings stretch beyond the fourth floor. So from the Soriya dome you can easily make out the riverside with landmarks Wat Ounalaom and Royal Palace. Better yet is the bird eye's view onto the yellow-painted Central Market building, a fascinating Khmer-colonial architecture.

Unfortunately, the highest restaurant in the cupola is for suki soup. Below that you'll find a Khmer fast food restaurant without English information and then BB World, a local burger chain, where at least there's an English menu and little to guess: "Chicken Burger" and "Fish Burger" are easy to understand items.

Only when it comes to their "Cambodian Burger" you start to wonder about the ingredients.

Authentically Khmer

Norah's lady friend and her husband invite us to a Khmer restaurant. After a car ride into a middle class quarter (streets sealed) even I have never been to, we pass a long row of demurely greeting beer and karaoke girls in polyester evening gowns. As in Thailand, the Khmers order various mains that anyone uses over rice.

The first mains arrive: grilled goat, deep-fried frog legs and goat soup.

Everybody has a hearty bite. Norah and friends blaspheme away about Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and his party CPP, how they broke that lease for Renakse hotel with Kem Chantha, she no nice person either, sure, but how the slimy CPP lawyer broke that lease and now obviously they want to demolish the whole lovely building, it's really part of Phnom Penh's face, already sold it on, profiting on the real estate boom in the capital, even the UN stepped in and advised against it, yes, just another disgusting move of Hun Sen and his gang of – – when suddenly they notice a very powerful looking older guy in a deep chair, holding hands with a much younger Khmer beauty and watching kickboxing on TV. The volume of talk drops, then they change topic. The powerful guy remains poker faced throughout.

Somehow I manage to get filled on grilled goat, deep-fried frog legs and goat soup, when yet another main arrives: a huge steamed fish. Why had nobody told me of that before?

Aria d'Italia and Le Duo

Both of us like Aria d'Italia much better, a cozy Italian diner where they pour a fantastic Montepulciano by the glass. Aria's manageress is only the second Khmer person I know who speaks some German. She actually spent six years in Dresden, Eastern Germany, before and after re-unification. Her German is almost perfect and completely Asian accent free. English she had to learn from scratch when entering the gastronomy business in Phnom Penh.

Aria's owner, she says, is an Italian who has more Italian restaurants in Firenze, Saigon, Hanoi and Tokyo. She says he lives in Saigon and pops along once or twice a month.

Aria's garden is another just 4 meters wide affair, but you believe to sit under a romantic cover of lemon trees – only that it's small *mangoes* hanging down. Just like many other garden restaurants, you get less of a breeze than you have imagined: The security walls are so high and solid that no air can move, so even in the garden they build up fans.

If you like thin-crust pizza dough, Aria is *the* place for you in Phnom Penh. It's easily eatable by hand. The covering tastes nice, but a little watery. The Sicilian salad had been announced with mozzarella, but arrived with yellow polyurethane cheese. The spaghetti alio e olio came al dente bordering uncooked. They were prepared with fresh chili even though in this case dried chili powder would have been a better choice.

Aria has other qualities. The staff is extremely attentive in a non-servile way and the road very quiet: It's completely blocked by security of the nearby Australian embassy. So no motos or anybody else rattles through and maybe that's one reason why the tiny restaurant garden remains embarrassingly empty except for our table most of the time. All in all, Kandal House has a slightly better pizza, even though Aria remains unbeat for vino and romance coefficient.

If your pizza garden needs to be much larger you can visit La Luna d'Autumno, featured in my first round of Phnom Penh gastronomy research. Also larger than Aria – no difficult task that – is Le Duo in road 228. Our first pizza there in 2007 was simply fantastic. You sit on a semi-open air terrace next to a blueish pool; air con seating is available too.

When we had that pizza the eminently affable Italian (?) owner was doing his rounds from table to table. Upon reaching us, he made some sour remarks about us being so economical: Norah and I shared just one pizza, just one salad and just one caraffe of house wine, and with that meagre order we occupied a very attractive table for five or six people. Then again, I had booked a table for two by telephone, so why did they place us on a big table anyway?

The second time in 2009 we come to Le Duo with a party of five, me the only westerner. The waitress patiently explains the Italian dishes to the Khmers who still can't decide after 15 minutes of discussion. (Pssst: I had suggested to Norah that we all go to a Khmer, Chinese or Thai restaurant, but she had reacted very angry, claiming "Khmer people can eat western food too, why not?!?")

At my recommendation, two Cambodians order Pizza Le Diavolo which should be most spicy. Coming back with the food, the waitress still knows exactly who ordered which pizza or pasta. My Khmers are very disappointed that the chilis on devilish pizza had been marinated before (they call it "sour chili"), and the pizza has "too much garlic". The pizza dough this time is weak and slippery, the 11 USD per carafe Merlot unspirited.

Finally we order one tirami su, one house made lemon ice cream and five spoons – sure making the manager happy again. The Khmers claim they like the tirami su but don't try more than one spoon each, so I am forced to take care of that. Sure Khmer people can east western food, just sometimes they don't anyway.

Topaz

Norah's nouveau riche lady friend Miss Sopheap takes us to Topaz down Norodom Boulevard. Apart from the five star hotel restaurants, Topaz is one of the most upmarket restaurants in town. We climb right up to the "piano bar" in the first floor, past the walk-in humidor for that refined stink.

Oh well, "piano bar". They don't play "A Kiss Is Still a Kiss". A Filipina singeress with lots of enthusiasm and less talent bursts out well-hung pop-oldies by The Carpenters or The Eagles, accompanied by an adequate Filipino pianist and his rhythm generator.

The whole place looks like a huge and very tasteful living room. Cocktails cost 5,5 USD and are nice, but not special. Sopheap's "Cardinal" (wine and champagne?) costs 8,5 USD. The waitresses are grace- and beautiful beyond anything i met on my usual tourist trails.

"The owner here also has that elegant Khmer restaurant Malis up the road", remarks Sopheap with an informed voice. Obviously, knowing the owner of an in-place is as de rigeur in Cambodia as in the west.

"Yes", I say, "he grew up in a Chinese restaurant and worked for the Cambodiana hotel back in the sixties before Lon Nol".

"Oh", replies Sopheap interestedly and probably a tad offended that I know more about the owner than she herself. "Did you talk to Mr. Luu Meng personally", she inquires jelously?

"Every backpacker knows him, he has a personal feature in the current Lonely Planet."

Together with the drinks, we had received little forms plus a song menu to request songs from the "band". If you want to sing along, they'll provide the lyrics. A drunk Thai businessman had just delivered a ridiculous performance.

The song request form has three sections and I quickly know what to order:

Song request: Mouse Love Rice

Requested by: Hans

Dedicated to: Norah!!

This is one of Norah's favorite non-Cambodian songs, I used to play it on the laptop for her when we stayed in the Renakse hotel. The Filipina singeress of course enthuses about my choice and urges Norah and me onto the stage to sing along, but we both don't dare. Anyway the Filipina's version of the soapy Chinese pop tune brings *that* romantic smile onto Norah's face that makes Topaz all worth the trip.

We leave around 11.30 pm, past the walk-in humidor, singer and pianist waving us goodbye enthusiastically. They are now alone in their luxury first floor living room.

Expensive Dog and Snake Meat

On the local Boeng Keng Kang market, Norah orders a baguette filled with paté. I order a baguette filled with anything not spicy, and, please, *no* paté. From Saigon to Phnom Penh, I found the look of that substance they call "paté" and believed to contain "meat", utmost dubios. I like my local style sandwich with sauerkraut, cucumber, soy sprouts and a tic of soy sauce.

"Maybe there's dog meat in your paté", I ask Norah?

"No, very sure not."

Hans: "How can you be so sure there's no dog meat in your paté"?

Norah: "Oh, dog is much too expensive, they wouldn’t use it."

"Ah really?"

"Yes, for paté they take only pork! Pork is around 4 USD per kilo, while dog is 10 or 20."

Hans, obnoxious: "Are you sure they take pork? Maybe they put snake, or mouse?"

Norah, confidently: "No! Really not!"

"Why do you know?"

"Because snake and mouse meat is very expensive too! Dog, snake, mouse – that’s for rich people only. They wouldn’t put it into paté sold in a middle class market."

Hans, finally convinced: "Ok, so that’s pork only in your paté. So there’s nothing to worry about paté."

Norah, munching: "Well, some people say for paté they use mostly sick pork."

Stickman's thoughts:

You've put me right into the mood for my upcoming Cambodia trip!