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Exploration unearths Phnom Penh's hidden culinary gems

Though there is no shortage of dining establishments in and around the city, the adventurous diner can sample some exotic fare in unusual  settings by throwing out the guidebook and taking a few chances

Photo by:

STEPHANIE MEE

Saphorn Music Bar shows that making an effort to stray from the well-trodden path can lead to pleasant surprises.

The Asian-fusion decor inside Chinese House matches the palette of the regionally influenced menu. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Even with its profusion of eating and drinking establishments, it can be a daunting task to find a venue in Phnom Penh that offers something different from the standard fare of pizzas, pastas, steaks, hamburgers, or the typical Khmer offerings of loc lac, amok, and fried rice.

The 2009 edition of the Cambodian Yellow Pages lists 793 Khmer restaurants in Phnom Penh: 515 Western/international restaurants - of which 136 are French - 275 Chinese restaurants, 311 cafes and 302 bars and pubs.

Amidst this ever-growing culinary landscape there are a few hidden gems that stand out for their unique atmospheres, interesting locales, and culinary ingenuity, should the adventurous diner seek them out.

Take, for example, one of Phnom Penh's most distinctive restaurants, which can be found in one of the most unlikely spots for a popular café: behind a Sokimex fuel station in the Russey Keo district.

Café Promenade is the brainchild of the friendly Visdh Nou and his equally amiable daughter, Sotheavy Nou, and occupies a large swathe of land on a sandy bank of the Tonle Sap River.

As small children play football and do backflips in the sand, and groups of laughing locals lounge on cushy wicker chairs facing the river, Visdh Nou describes how popular the natural beach-like haven has become.

"I found this place by accident, and originally intended it to be a small café, but it has gotten busier and busier since we opened almost a year ago," he says.

Photo by:

STEPHANIE MEE

Café Promenade, on the banks of the Tonle Sap, offers a relaxed, sandy, beach-like haven within the bustling city of Phnom Penh.

Photo by:

STEPHANIE MEE

Enjoy the laid-back vibe of Sophorn Music Bar from a hammock.

Dining in Phnom Penh doesn’t have to be an exercise in homogeneity or the mundane.

Visdh Nou explains that although they offer an eclectic menu of tasty finger foods such as fresh mango salad, roti with Capa duck, spicy buffalo chicken wings, and the Cambodian favourite of phak luv (baguette with pate, cucumbers, lettuce and pickles), he wants to focus mainly on the atmosphere.

"When I decided to buy these large comfy chairs, people warned me that customers would order a drink and stay for hours. I thought, ‘so what?'" he says.

As the café is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there really is no reason for people to leave.

"During the day we usually get students and families who come to relax and enjoy the views," says Sotheavy Nou.

"At night we get many people who work night shifts, karaoke stars, employees from CTN who work late, and of course the occasional late-night drinkers who come from other parties or bars. It's actually a very lively and safe place to be at night."

Atmosphere can make or break a restaurant, and at Sophorn Music Bar in the Bak Kaing district along National Road 6, atmosphere is the main draw.

Here a series of stilted wooden walkways form paths high above a lotus-filled lake to breezy, thatched pavilions overlooking the calm river and lake, grassy fields and sugar palm trees.

Each pavilion is adorned with two to three rustic hemp hammocks and low-lying wooden tables.

"This spot is popular with all sorts of city dwellers because it is close to the city, but away from the pollution, dust and noise of the city centre," says owner Nong Chom.  "People often spend hours relaxing here because of the beautiful views, fresh air, and the spectacular sunsets."

Popular dishes at Sophorn Music Bar include hearty seafood soup with lime, whole roasted chicken cooked with a choice of Coca-Cola sauce, lemongrass, honey, or tamarind.

The house speciality is bunh, thin sticky rice pancakes, fried until crispy on the outside, filled with shredded chicken, and served with sides of fresh vegetables and a sweet and spicy sauce made of peanuts, vinegar, chilli and palm sugar.

Non-Khmer speaking diners should note that the menu is written only in Khmer, although many of the staff can speak English fairly well.

For a bit of history with unique Asian fare and cocktails, Chinese House, an art gallery with a second-floor restaurant and bar, is an ideal spot to spend an evening of culture and cuisine.

Built in 1903 by a wealthy Chinese merchant, the house is an amalgamation of Chinese architecture and French colonial style, and retains all its original roofs, doors, pillars, facade and floor tiles.

Co-owner Alexis de Suremain says he almost turned the venue down.

"When someone suggested I open a restaurant here I originally thought that it was too far from the main drag," he says. "But then when I finally went to see it I thought, ‘wow'."

The enticing Asian fusion menu was formulated by the talented Rattana Gordon, and includes distinctive specialities such as spicy pork in soup with broad rice noodles, a dish that hails from the Yunnan region in Southwest China. And the coconut milk-based chicken curry topped with crispy rice noodles is an ethnic Chinese Muslim dish.

"You will never find these dishes anywhere else in Phnom Penh," said Gordon.  "Most of the dishes are influenced by many different cultures, for example Malay, Chinese, Khmer and ethnic minority groups."

Chinese House also raises the bar with special events, which include live jazz bands, Chinese punk shows, movie nights with

an accompanying three-course vegetarian meal, and rotating art shows at the gallery on the first floor.

Clearly, as these three restaurants prove, dining in Phnom Penh doesn't have to be an exercise in homogeneity or the mundane.

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