The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is home to an eclectic range of restaurants serving up creative plates. Here are five standout spots.
Words Marissa Carruthers Photography Enric Català Contreras
Innovative flair spills out of kitchens across Phnom Penh, where classic dishes are being reinvented, a creative collection of fusion plates are served, and imaginative menus are drawn up. We throw the spotlight on some of the most vibrant restaurants on the capital’s culinary scene, spanning stalwart spots to new contenders.
Friends the Restaurant
Serving as a feeder restaurant to many of Cambodia’s hotels and eateries, Friends the Restaurant is a social enterprise operated by non-governmental organisation Friends International. As part of its mission to break the cycle of poverty, it trains and employs former street children and marginalised youth in a variety of sectors, with hospitality being one. This is the final stage in the budding chefs’ 18-month course.
Former culinary student Saroeun Meas was promoted to head chef in late 2017, having spent almost a decade working in the restaurant to train future chefs. As the mastermind behind its current menu, Saroeun has created daring dishes that play with flavours and inject a contemporary feel into classic cuisine.
The result is a standout menu that features a bountiful range of dishes, all with their roots in Southeast Asia. These include a juicy sautéed mushroom laap with smoky eggplant puree, topped with lime and chilli. Then there are roasted cherry tomatoes, avocado, spinach and sautéed mushrooms that sit atop multigrain bread, all topped with cashew nut cheese. And, of course, there are Cambodian classics, including the national dish of fish amok cooked and served in banana leaves.
The more adventurous can get their protein fix in the form of the giant creepy-crawly bug burger – expect tarantulas, ants, crickets and other insects. “I wanted to make a really creative menu,” says Saroeun. “Something that makes us stand out.”
Topaz has been giving French fine dining a local twist for more than two decades. Since 2002, head chef Sopheak Pov has led the sophisticated spot’s reinterpretation of classical French dishes while adding a taste of Cambodia along the way.
A recently refreshed menu highlights Sopheak’s creativity and passion. Take the beef and mushroom soup, a dish that embodies a snug French autumn and takes almost 10 hours to perfect, or the beef fillet that features French black truffles, crisp and light potato cakes, and seasonal vegetables.
Signature Topaz dishes remain on the menu, such as Sopheak’s popular pairing of foie gras with mango. “I wanted to bring together France and Cambodia,” says Sopheak, who spent three months gaining experience in French kitchens in Paris and Bordeaux during the start of his tenure with Topaz.
To maintain Topaz’s edge, a Michelin-star chef is invited from France every quarter to spend time working with the kitchen’s 45 staff. The trip culminates in a decadent multi-course menu served during an exclusive evening at Topaz. The colourful rum baba is one of the latest desserts added to the menu and was created for a Michelin event. “I want to show Cambodia as a culinary destination and put it back on the map,” says Sopheak.
Since June 2017, La’ Baab has been serving creative Lower Mekong cuisine, with dishes putting a new spin on classics. Tucked away up some flights of stairs in a nondescript building, La’ Baab epitomises contemporary Cambodia, both in its décor and dishes. The previously abandoned apartment has been transformed into a stylish spot that draws inspiration from the traditional wooden homes that dot rural Battambang.
“We’ve tried to preserve traditional elements while being creative, young and hip,” says co-owner Rith Yoeun, sitting beneath a light fixture made from traditional bamboo baskets used by Mekong fishermen. The result is a colourful explosion of flavours that take diners on a culinary journey across Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam in stylishly quirky surroundings.
Innovative options include the Vietnamese dish of snails stuffed with pork and fresh lemongrass, served alongside a sweet and sour fish sauce. The Cambodian speciality of prahok – a pungent fermented fish paste commonly used in cooking – takes centre stage in La’ Baab’s spin on prahok ktis, a delicious wholesome dip made from prahok, minced pork, shallots, palm sugar and coconut milk, served alongside raw vegetables, including cabbage, cucumbers and carrots.
“We balance modern with traditional in everything we do,” adds Rith.
Mara Steak, Wok and Wine
In mid-January, a new version of upmarket urban-chic restaurant Mara was unveiled in the form of Mara Steak, Wok and Wine. Building on the success of its predecessor, the upgraded restaurant features a menu packed with reimagined delights.
With beef being the main order of the day, the swanky yet hip steakhouse serves a sensational mix of steaks and succulent cuts of meat. The range of freshly imported grain-fed Angus beef and Tajima wagyu beef is proving popular with the affluent young local crowd that frequents the joint. The show-stopper comes in the form of the Tomahawk, a tender 1.5-kilogram on-the-bone steak.
Other crowd-pleasers include the soft-shell crab seasoned with spicy mayonnaise and Kampot pepper, Pacific and Canadian oysters, and a smattering of small plates for sharing. These include tofu and broccolinis sautéed with fresh pepper, crispy pork belly and truffle fries.
The fine flavours of Japan also feature heavily, with tataki and sashimi dishes available, as well as saba (lightly grilled mackerel). Throw into the mix Mara’s cavernous walk-in wine cellar, and an evening of fine food paired with perfect drinks in swanky surroundings awaits.
Since opening in February 2018 as one of luxury hotel Rosewood Phnom Penh’s four restaurants, Brasserie Louis has quickly cemented itself as a firm favourite on the capital’s dining scene. Embodying the atmosphere of traditional gastropubs found on the streets of France’s Lyon and Toulouse, the restaurant combines Cambodian classics with the fine flavours of France.
Situated on the 35th floor of 39-storey Vattanac Capital Tower – Phnom Penh’s tallest building – the pièce de résistance is the panoramic views of the city sprawling below. With a casual yet stylish vibe, the menu has been carefully curated by Spanish chef Cristia Nou Picar and captures the essence of its exquisite surroundings.
For example, the Cari Saramann is an aromatic curry that showcases Cambodian cuisine at its finest – a flavoursome blend of herbs, with a subtle hint of spice. Here, melt-in-the-mouth chunks of beef are infused with the flavours of Khmer curry made from staple Cambodian ingredients, including galangal, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime and cinnamon. Coconut milk sweetens the dish, topped with roasted peanuts and dry chilli.
Cristia and his team have worked to elevate the simplest of dishes, with the traditional local snack of Na Tang featuring on the menu. The spicy shrimp-and-pork dip, served with crunchy glutinous rice crackers, is the ideal way to start a meal. “I wanted to create something really unique,” says Cristia. “Simple dishes that use high-quality ingredients and products.”