Sasha Ilic and Bozo Popovic, the Yugoslavian owners of new Phnom Penh gastro-bar Raqia Republic, believe happiness is a choice. The men hold strong to the philosophy, and hedonism, they insist, is the guiding principle of their upscale Street 172 establishment. “Classic hedonism,” amends Popovic.
“It is very simple,” whispers the beefy, pony-tailed Popovic through a cloud of vanilla-flavoured tobacco smoke. “I love the easy life.” And so it is with his new establishment: eat, drink, be merry, toast to the Old Country. “Ziveli!” To life.
Epicurean leanings seem to link the seemingly mismatched pair. Popovic, a native of Zagreb and a decade older than 27-year-old Ilic, describes himself as a man of fine things. He smokes from an Italian river-wood pipe loaded with Danish tobacco which he lights with matches from a Paraguayan matchbox.
He is a motorcycle enthusiast (mostly Harleys). He owns three vineyards in Croatia, acquired from his grandfather, as well as two restaurants and another bar there.
Raqia Republic, his first venture outside Eastern Europe, sells his family’s wine, called Panonia ($28-$300 a bottle, $3 a glass for house), in bulk. Approximately 1,176 bottles line towering shelves near the entrance, says Illic, though the superb “organic” variety sits behind the bar, he adds.
Popovic first visited Cambodia three years ago on the recommendation of a Slavic friend here (one of 13 countrymen in the Kingdom, they say, naming each one). Popovic took well to it and returned each year before finally opening the new gastro-bar.
“The energy here is so much positive,” opined the Croat this week with a warm, after-wine smile, his soft voice barely audible over the Gypsy jangle of a Saban Bajramovic recording wafting through the narrow space. The restaurant is adorned with stone walls, a long bar, a few tables and a big, blood-red curtain at the back.
Ilic, a political science graduate student, jazz fan and the more verbose of the pair, explained his business partner’s Cambodian origin story more succinctly. “It comes down to this – Bozo hates winter,” he teased.
Raqia Republic, which opened last weekend, is the first bar in the country to specialise in raqia (also spelled rakia), a potent fruit brandy ubiquitous throughout the Balkans, sweet and mildly throat-burning.
They import five varieties from Croatia: honey, plum, pear, apricot and quince, and plan to produce a mango batch here in the future. A small glass costs $3.
Raqia is a drink for all occasions, explains Ilic, “for weddings and funerals”, sipped in the morning and more gratuitously in the evening. It brings people together, he says, and enlivens the spirit. Popovic and Ilic hope to successfully transfer raqia’s bonding powers here.
Their target market, they say, is all who appreciate a fine drink in tasteful surrounds. “Everyone’s united under the raqia flag,” joked Ilic, though he added that patrons were expected to behave themselves – the Republic lies just outside the raucous confines of Street 51.
While the Republic currently offers only libations, in a few months there will be Balkan meals on hand. The proposed menu of mostly meats and pastries sounds enticing – rib racks, roast lamb, buredzik, a meat pie.
The goal is to keep recipes as genuine as possible, stressed the pair. To that end, Popovic will fly to Zagreb soon to pick up a sac, a shallow iron pot used in the Old Country to bake dough or meat under charcoal. Meat will be sourced from a Slav who runs a ranch in Sihanoukville.
“We are a meat-based region,” explained Ilic, who is from Serbia. He added that animal flesh is not much messed with in Balkan cooking. “Meat needs to taste good by itself,” he said.
But that is for a later date, maybe two months down the road, they estimate. For now, it is only drinks – spirits, wine, beer, raqia – and hedonism. As Popovic put it himself, “This place was made for hedonism.”
Raqia Republic is located at,#8 Street 172. Tel: 077 388 491.