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Michael Pataran, the chef and proprietor of Agave Cocina, is bringing his love for Oaxacan cuisine to Phnom Penh. Eliah Lillis

Pan-Am cuisine lands in the capital

The opening of a new Mexican restaurant in the capital, run by a Canadian of Croatian descent, isn’t just a fluke of globalisation. Owner and chef Michael Pataran brings years of experience cooking for high-end establishments to his latest – and far more casual venture: Agave Cocina.

Pataran, whose imposing stature belies his mild-mannered charm, had a straightforward motivation for opening the bar-restaurant or restaurante y cantina.

“I spent a lot of time in Mexico, down in Oaxaca by the Yucatán Peninsula,” he says. “I always thought I’d want to open up a really cool, festive Mexican place with a ton of tequila, great cocktails, not too expensive but approachable and really, really good food.”

After having his hands in the opening or managing of some 16 restaurants around the world – most recently in the Bahamas – Pataran says he was into a second bottle of wine with his wife Helen Duffey on the balcony of his home in Toronto when a text came through from a former colleague asking if he’d take a job in Cambodia.

“Helen grabbed my phone and texted him back and said ‘I’ll take it’,” he says. So in 2015 they began a one year stint with him as the chef at the Song Saa private island in the Koh Rong archipelago, but the “Gilligan’s island” isolation sent them “climbing up the walls”. So they moved to Phnom Penh and after some months decided they would take a step back and open a restaurant on their own terms.

After scoping out several villas, Pataran settled one just off street 163 in Russian Market and spent a month gutting the interior and creating the colourful dining space and bar, which is overlooked by a large Mexican flag mural as well as portraits of figures such as Frida Kahlo and Mexican revolutionaries. Outside the villa, repainted to a hacienda colour palette, a patio dining area with red, white and green metal chairs is pleasantly lit by fairy lights strung overhead.

But the food – centered around Oaxacan cuisine – is where Pataran’s attention to detail shines.

“Oaxaca . . . is one of I think the most important regions for Mexican food. There’s an amalgamation of Latin America, Panamanian and Uruguayan that comes up so you get a little bit of that food kicking in with  . [elements] of Mexican culture that you don’t get in the north and then Caribbean food from the islands also coming,” he says.

The result is a Pan-American feel and the menu features everything from ceviches to empanadas to tamales, all made with fresh corn flour. For Pataran, this is the focus, as opposed to highly popularized Tex-Mex and Cal-tex cuisines. Familiar fare like nachos will be on the menu but Pataran is trying to avoid making too many concessions.

“We’re trying to keep it real and light, as authentic as we can,” he says.

The Oaxacan crab cakes Post Weekend sampled were light and flavourful, and the Ocho tequila-cured salmon served in a cornbread base, with some avocado and lime cream, were a novel delight. With most dishes ranging $5-$10, Agave Cocina definitely delivers on value for quality – which also extends to the wide selection of tequila and mezcal.

Here you won’t find any Jose Cuervo aside from their premium line; the house tequila Cimarron ($3 for a glass) is made from pure agave and is also used to make the syrup that goes into their cocktails.

“It’s got a good burn on it, but it’s got a nice sweetness, a good amount of oak, a bit of woodsy flavour on it,” Pataran says, explaining that if you want the salt and lime to take a shot, it’s available, but Cimarron is good enough to be sipped.

Agave Cocina is located at #38 Street 426, and is open 5pm-11pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the soft opening. Regular business hours will be 11am-11pm Friday-Sunday and 5pm-11pm Tuesday-Thursday. Tel: 087 882 999.

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