If you’re new in town, Ocean is the sort of restaurant that instantly raises your expectations, a dangerous game in a city where increasingly sophisticated kitchens are opening up faster than even the savviest tuk-tuk drivers can keep up with.
Though already a Phnom Penh institution, it is worth another visit given the updated culinary landscape here.
Tucked away on Street 288 you need to be on the lookout for subtle blue lit sign and neatly trimmed hedges. As you make your way past a pair of outdoor tables into the converted hophouse high ceilings, walls and fixtures are painted a potless white, creating an illusion of space in the small dining room. Colour comes in the form of several striking pieces by local artist Chhim Sothy.
The aircon is running but at a very low level, fans keep things comfortable, but anyone hoping for a blast of cold air upon entering is in for disappointment. Tables are packed tightly but efficiently by the German owner, leaving you free to smile at your neighbour but never feeling crammed in.
The night we visited service was slowed by the presence of musicians from Bangkok (a semi-regular occurrence) who performed works by Schubert, Dvorak and Bizet for a packed restaurant. Both staff and owners were gracious and accommodating when half of our larger than reserved for party arrived mid-performance.
Waitstaff are refreshingly comfortable and once you get their attention, deal with ordering and any other requests with a level of coolness and execution rarely found in this town, no need to repeat the entire table’s orders here. A complimentary plate of crostini miraculously contained enough for everyone at our table to try one of each.
The theme is Mediterranean, but pass on the Greek salad, which after a top layer sprinkled with meager bits of feta and tomatoes ends up being more or less a bowl of lettuce; instead order the chilled cucumber soup (US$4). Like a thick gazpacho, the soup is beautifully textured, dotted heavily with dill it is intensely refreshing while generous strips of cured salmon add a subtle richness.
Try the fusilli with beef filet and mushrooms ($7), the filet is finely diced but tender and the mushrooms retain enough crispness to offset slightly overcooked noodles. The dish sits in a startlingly light cream sauce, you’ll ask for a spoon.
Skip the beef a la Milanese ($6): thin-sliced beef completely overpowered by the garlic it is stir-fried too long with – sitting on a bed of bland greens it would seem more at home in a beer garden.
The seafood platter ($13) is a pile of large prawns, squid and a crisp pan-fried fish filet that will hold you over until the next trip to Kep. Spaghetti with squid is fresh, simple and the olive oil and tomato sauce will have you calling for a third bread basket.
The wine list offers six or seven choices each of reds and whites, about half available by the carafe, which yields about two small glasses and is a wine serving trend that would do well to catch on in Phnom Penh. The house white is dry, light and immensely drinkable. Bottles range from $16-40.
Claims to the “best chocolate mousse in Phnom Penh” could possibly be refuted and like most dishes we were served, it came without garnish or fanfare, but dense and swimming in a vanilla sauce it is a winner.
Ocean is definitely worth a visit and although bit counterintuitive in Cambodia avoid the seemingly simple dishes. Challenge them and the kitchen will rise to the occasion.
Ocean, 11 St 288 (btw 57 and 63), dinner for four with wine and tip: $65