New Cambodian Children’s Fund training restaurant Black Bambu serves innovative and delicious tapas-style fusion cusine in minimalist surroundings
Black Bambu is a not-for-profit training restaurant set up by the Cambodian Children’s Fund, but it doesn’t offer any clues as to its provenance: there are no mission statements on the menus, or pictures of community projects on the walls. Instead the Street 228 building, until recently a traditional villa accessed via a worn teal gate, has been scrubbed and soldered into a paean to late 1980s minimalism. Everything is white: the floor, the tables, even the domed temple on the lawn, next to which a huge statue of the Buddha looks down on approaching diners.
The effect is a bit like walking into a meditation resort for millionaires, or the set for a Hollywood dream sequence. But I’m glad to confirm that the food at Black Bambu is not made of set-prop polystyrene. It’s real, and deliciously so.
Billed as fusion cuisine (another ’80s throwback), what the restaurant offers is an innovative but never jarring medley of local influences and foreign staples – mainly imported from Japan and southern Europe.
Kampot pepper piques the homemade pate, pomegranate and soy coat the beef skewers, and lemongrass lifts the flavour of sticky lamb sausages. The pairings are subtly pitched and skilfully executed, particularly in the “small plates” that the restaurant specialises in.
The idea is for diners to share a selection of dishes – priced between $3.50 and $8 – between them, although pricier “large plates” are also available. They’ve happily avoided the tendency of tapas-style dining to focus on stodgy single-ingredient dishes. Most of the small plates are varied meals in themselves and come complete with thoughtful sides rather than token garnish.
The salads are equally well considered. Pairing chilled prawn, snapper and squid with crunchy green beans and salsa verde produced a dish where every flavour announced itself individually, and a cumin dressing and marinated onions gave a spicy kick to the lentil, asparagus and spinach salad that established it as a dish in its own right rather than an inoffensive side. The rolled artichokes were zesty and rich, and any potential for their oiliness to feel sluggish was absorbed by the accompanying homemade ricotta – a moreish combination when spread on crispy toast.
The chefs are also happy to keep things simple when the food demands it. The mini beef burgers are straightforward patties topped with cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, although little touches still hint at the thought behind the composition: the buns are made of a hearty brown bread, and it’s a sweet mustard pickle, rather than vinegary gherkins, that breaks up the fat of the meat.
Black Bambu has a better stocked drinks cabinet than many bars in Phnom Penh, with an extensive martini list on their menu (although to be clear – they’re referring to the glass the cocktails are served in, not the gin and vermouth American classic). If you’ve got a sweet tooth, I recommend the cointreau and passion fruit zing of the “Burning Passion”, whereas the “Ginger Lemongrass” has a tart vigour to it. Both cost $5.
There are a few things that Black Bambu could do to better accent its style. If you’re opting for stark minimalism then it pays to invest in flower displays that aren’t plastic, and paintings that aren’t imitation prints (although their choice of Matisse and Gauguin is welcome). But what matters is what’s on the menu, and here there are no cheap copies.
The food is tasty and ambitious without overreaching, and four months after its opening, the restaurant is rightly attracting a steady stream of visitors for lunch and dinner. There’s a healthy market for fine dining in Phnom Penh if you know how to do it right – and Black Bambu certainly does.
Black Bambu can be found at #29, Street 228. Tel: 023 966 895. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:30am to 11pm. Closed Mondays.