Down a dark driveway and behind a garage door is a secret hideout of sorts – a place to eat, drink or even to play board games. Run by the barman-owner “Coro” and his wife “Lari”, the chef, the family business is less of a ritzy and exclusive club than it is a family-run hole-in-the-wall – or a “pirates’ tavern”, as they call it. There’s one catch, though: to make a reservation one must be referred by word of mouth.
So while Post Weekend cannot reveal the location, the experience at Coro and Lari’s restaurant is well worth putting in the time to ask around. Once customers have the contact, they must make a call and reserve an evening for a private party, indicating any dietary restrictions. At that point, Coro reveals the location.
Lari, the mind behind the food, says her goal is to represent “home-made cooking by moms and grandmas”, or what in Japan is called ofukoro no aji, or “mother’s taste”.
“Japanese food, when it’s represented, a lot of people think that it’s sushi, sashimi or ramen, but I don’t really like that idea because . . . it’s not real daily Japanese food,” she says.
Lari’s cooking comes not from her mother, who left home when she was a young girl, but rather from growing up on a dairy farm in Southern Japan. Her father would sell milk and yoghurt directly to restaurants, frequently exposing her to gourmands.
“We had a few great chefs in our client list that we would see every week that we delivered to, and so that was an inspiration also,” she says.
Her influence is mainly from southern Japan and the island of Okinawa, where she and Coro owned a farm before heading to Cambodia.
“The unique food [from Okinawa] where I spent almost half of my life is very close to Cambodia in how the people are and the weather, [and] the ingredients you get are really similar,” she says. “And so I thought there’s no one doing Okinawan food here, so why not?”
The $35 “Greedy Pirate’s Feast” is what first-timers are served: a culinary tour-de-force of 15 individual dishes served over four courses, plus dessert. The menu is unique for each visiting party.
From a steamed egg, topped with green caviar seaweed among the starters, to a procession of tapas dishes, including salmon roe on white radish and simmered Cambodian pumpkin, it’s a meal that balances flavour with originality.
When it comes to the beef she uses, Lari takes no prisoners, such as with the beef sashimi with ponzu sauce.
“That’s what I came here to do in the first place – to raise decent beef, but oh well, some day maybe,” she says. Despite not having her own farm, she often makes use of Cambodian meat, which she wet-ages and says has the advantage of being naturally grass fed.
Meanwhile, the grilled beef main, which includes a selection of cow tongue, is served with side garnishes of refined salt, wasabi and a homemade Japanese lime and green pepper sauce.
While Lari insists she’s not a sushi or sashimi expert, the raw salmon on rice alongside the clam soup caps off the meal.
Dining at Coro and Lari’s is an intimate experience, partly because the restaurant is also their home. So while Lari is captain in the kitchen, Coro leaves his mark in the living room-dining area.
Coro built the bar counter and decorations – which include a few subtle nods to Cambodia, whether in Apsara motifs or small ornaments hidden in one of the several rooms diners can choose from.
He’s also selected the playlist of jazz, blues, Japanese rap and hip-hop, which sets a chill atmosphere throughout the night, although he says that even the playlist is modified to the preferences of customers.
To drink, the bar offers a selection that Coro says has also evolved based on the patrons’ poisons of choice – whether it’s a Belgian tripel, champagne, sake or wine.
“He sometimes spends two or three hours at the wine house,” Lari says with a laugh.But beyond the spirits, Coro has an intense passion for backgammon, which is a theme throughout. The kitchen door is painted with backgammon stripes, and in the back is an entire game room with a specially built backgammon table. He’s also a founder of Phnom Penh’s backgammon club.
“From my point of view, I am addicted to backgammon,” he says with a chuckle, though he still sees the lingering effects of a long-lapsed Japanese government ban of the game centuries ago. “Only one of my Japanese customers can play, so I want to get our spirit back.”
As if finding kinship with the outlaw backgammon players of the past, Coro – despite now being mild mannered – was once a troublemaker in his youth, he notes.
“I was kicked out of high school . . . I was smoking cigarettes, getting into fights,” he says. Now, he’s more keen on ensuring guests have a good evening, and if they want to play a game, all the better – perhaps over a glass of plum wine after a good meal.
Lari and Coro’s restaurant is by reservation only. After finding the number, call to book a custom dinner. Introductory dinners are $35 per person, not including alcohol.