Australian restaurateurs Wendy Lucas and chef Derek Mayes found an out-of-the-way place on Street 21, a back street opposite the Russian embassy and the Almond Hotel, where they take a lot of pleasure in providing guests with unusual combinations of food with a focus on taste sensations.
One favourite item currently on offer is crispy pork belly slow-braised in dark ale and caramel, which takes four or five hours to cook. Lucas, who works the floor and takes care of the guests, along with Khmer staff as Mayes prepares the creations in the kitchen, recommends an Australian wine called Bush Shiraz,which costs about $23 a bottle.
The cosy, brick-lined setting and informal manner of the couple, described as “salt-of-the-earth” Australians, makes for a specialised evening in Phnom Penh, one-of-a-kind.
Another dish is arugula herb and parsley, coated with sesame seeds, topped with beetroot hummus and a yoghurt and tahini dressing.
It’s an evening place that opens at 5pm, and the kitchen most often closes at 10 pm.
“We are all about experimenting with fresh ingredients and good flavours, mixing and matching,” Lucas said. “We change our menu constantly and it is all about the availability of the products and the new ideas we come up with.”
Lucas and Mayes pride themselves on good service for small crowds.
“Our passion is food. We cater to vegetarians very easily because we have a lot of vegetarian items on the menu,” Lucas said. “Quite often, people let us know two or three days in advance and we can make something for them.”
Another popular menu item is kangaroo.
“You can feel your taste buds. When you leave you’re not over-full. It is a much healthier way of eating,” she said. “Your palate matures and develops.”
Originally from Adelaide, Australia, Lucas met Mayes, a former executive with IBM, in Tasmania, where they ran a restaurant together.
“He had a sea change; got out of the corporate world and started a restaurant in Tasmania, and that’s where I met him.”
They’ve been in Phnom Penh for 10 years and have a loyal following of customers, mostly local Khmer people and many foreigners.
The Lost Room opened in July last year. The couple formerly ran a restaurant called Talkin’ to a Stranger, which had two locations, one in Boeung Keng Kang 1 and the other in Tonle Bassac.
“I spend most of my time explaining the food to the customers and advising them. We call our menu eclectic and people learn about us more from word of mouth. People can bring other friends here,” Lucas said.
Lucas and Mayes have a small, loyal Khmer staff.
“In this society, it is nice to get our staff to relax and let their personalities come out and not be scared of the customers,” Lucas says. “They can have their own friendships and the more exposed to customers they get the more relaxed they get.”
About the location of the Lost Room, they knew it was in an out-of-the-way place, but realised that could also be an advantage.
“If you know Phnom Penh well, it is very easy to find.” (You turn right next to the Buddhist temple, opposite the Russian embassy just past the Almond Hotel, then take the first left. The Lost Room is just down on the right)
“We used to live nearby, and found this location, and had it six months before we did any renovations. We ripped tiles off and lacquered all the walls, installed recessed lighting.”
There’s also a bar just behind the dining area which Lucas calls The Lost Room within the Lost Room.
She says she’s happy to see the changes that have taken place in Cambodia during the past 10 years.
“Cambodia is just exploding with people who are moving here from overseas with their families. It’s much more secure now, and I think the investment growth is just going to keep expanding.”
To book a reservation at The Lost Room, the phone number is 078 700 001. Guests can make special requests for lunch meetings.
“There’s plenty of parking here,” Lucas says. “If you want to have lunch, just call.
‘”We love food and we love people. There are very few places you can have an expat on the floor, intervening with a personal touch. That’s what I love to do.”
Lucas is especially proud of the Australian wines, but also carries wines from Argentina, Spain and France.
“We have a lot of friends who come in late, after they’ve been somewhere,” she says.