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‘Fine dining’ doesn’t fulfil its promise

Lighting glares above the tables.
Lighting glares above the tables. Charlotte Pert

‘Fine dining’ doesn’t fulfil its promise

Phnom Penh has no shortage of Italian food: there is the cosy, deli-style Piccolo Italia da Luigi; the crispy pizzas at Limoncello and the fabulous gnocchi at Opera Café, washed down with red wine and jazz. Caravan’s, which opened a month ago, promises to bring “Italian fine dining” to the table.

And promise there is: on Sihanouk Boulevard, close to Norodom, the restaurant offers a prime view of Independence Monument, glorious when lit up at night. But when I dined there with friends last week, I found there to be almost no substance behind the shiny façade.

The staff did their absolute best to be welcoming. Before we’d even stepped inside, two waiting staff eagerly bombarded us with questions and tripped over themselves to invite us in, as though to leave us to our own devices would risk us slipping through their fingers. When we sat down, they gathered around our table – the only one occupied – and stood watching. Unnerved, we moved nearer the door and further away from the bar, which was marginally more private.

Caravan’s tortellini a fungo: I couldn’t taste any mushroom.
Caravan’s tortellini a fungo: I couldn’t taste any mushroom. Charlotte Pert

As with the service, so much effort was put into the décor that it was affronting. The tables, draped in white tablecloths, are set in the style appropriate to a fine-dining experience. But it’s all chillingly ostentatious. Walls are painted a garish gold colour with a shiny veneer, paintings in a faux-Picasso style hang on the walls, and the lighting, mostly dark, glared above us at the tables. It felt as though we were on a film set that could collapse at any second.

A first glance at the menu’s high prices prompted an intake of breath: $6 to $8 for appetisers; pasta dishes that ranged between $8.50 and $27, and as much as $30 for a main course of meat or fish. A cut of Kobe beef steak was a whopping $67. But then again, it was fine dining I expected – more fool me.

Our main courses were disappointing – obscenely so, when taking the price into consideration. I ordered tortellini a fungo ($9.50), described on the menu as “mushroom tortellini stewed in a tomato sauce, butter, chopped parsley”. It was in fact a very ungenerous portion of what tasted like undercooked pasta from a tin, covered in Heinz tomato soup. I couldn’t taste any mushroom.

A friend’s salmone grigliato was flavourless and unseasoned and came with sides of a peculiar spinach puree and lumpy mashed potatoes. It cost $20.50. The torta al cioccolato caldo dessert didn’t prompt too many complaints, but at $12.50 it was more than double the price of similar dishes available elsewhere in the city.

I don’t know what kind of clientele Caravan’s is trying to draw in. In Phnom Penh, $80 between three people – a price that includes just two glasses of wine – is a lot of money for cuisine that is underwhelming to say the least. Management is going to have to push the views of the monument as a selling point unless the menu is drastically improved, and fast.

Caravan’s, #68 Sihanouk Boulevard.

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