Frequest visitors to Pontoon the club, especially those who can hark back to when it was on an actual pontoon, have reason to be sceptical of the sleek new restaurant connected to it. They shouldn’t be.
After a slightly rocky start and a couple of chefs later, Pontoon Bistro has reinvented itself as more of a late night lounge and has been able to do what few restaurants in Phnom Penh have: it has found its niche.
It would be too easy to write off the space, with its vaulted ceilings, half-draped curtains and backlit bar, as “clubby”. It is – the music is loud and at a certain hour there is the risk of finding shirtless backpackers. Pontoon makes no effort to hide this. With most of the restaurant lined with high-backed booths that are equally cozy for two or 10 people, it is a decidedly pleasant place to take refuge from the dance floor. Anyone with qualms about the late night scene would be remiss not to stop by earlier when the mood is a bit more subdued, because the food is remarkably good.
The menu keeps things simple but execution, be it at 8pm or 4am, is near flawless. The small plates section consists of fried and grilled drinking snacks, priced from $2.50-$5.50. Do chicken wings and popcorn shrimp deserve heaps of praise? Pontoon could have thrown anything greasy and deep fried at the drunken masses (it wasn’t long ago they did), instead these wings are carefully executed, juicy and not oily; the shrimp are even better with a zesty kick.
Salads are included in the large plates section, the Nicoise is a hearty and creamily dressed bowl, topped with a healthy serving of beautifully seared real tuna. At $6.50 it’s relatively healthy and solid enough for a late night snack. A strip steak with imported beef from the US will set you back $16.50, we order medium rare but it comes a bit closer to medium. It’s a decent cut, doused in a peppercorn sauce, a companion declares it the best steak he’s had in Cambodia. I won’t go that far, but it is flavourful and tender (luckily, as a requested steak knife never materialises - perhaps a late night safety precaution).
The lamb shanks ($11.50) arrive in a burgundy sauce, it falls off the bone and is quite literally inhaled. The accompanying mashed potatoes, with some green peas thrown in for good measure, soak up marrow and sauce; they are among the best I’ve had in Cambodia.
Nearly an entire page of the menu is devoted to burgers; try the Karma, a tandoori-esque chicken breast slathered in a raita like yoghurt sauce. A more traditional bacon cheeseburger features crispy onion rings and barbecue sauce: it’s a thick and juicy patty cooked medium rare, the kind of burger that should fall apart in your hands but doesn’t. No need to get sloppier than normal in Pontoon at 3am. The Greek burger at $7 is a tour de force of ground lamb and creamy feta cheese, ask for some tatziki sauce on the side. All burgers come with fries, which are thin and crispy, but in a rare slip-up consistently under-salted.
The wine list is adequate, choices run the gamut from the Phnom Penh standard Anekena Cab Sav, which at $15 is easily drinkable and bold enough to stand up to lamb and burgers, to $98 Haut de Pontet-Canet Bordeaux. To class things up a ’98 vintage of Orpale Grand Cru is $198, but Prosecco can be had for $18 a bottle: not outrageous given the venue.
Of course bottle service is available and the cocktail list is available by glass or jug because let’s face it, at a certain point in the night it’s wiser to stick with the Long Island Ice Teas.
It’s not ingenuity in the kitchen that separates Pontoon Bistro from counterparts around town, it’s just refreshing to find a restaurant that has found its place and stuck with it. At the end of the night, nobody wants molecular gastronomy. Pontoon has focused on quality execution and they’ve done it well. On a recent visit with a large group I asked repeatedly if anything was sub-par, nobody could come up with any true faults. Setting clear parameters and focusing on quality within them would serve a lot of other restaurants around town very well.
Pontoon Bistro, 80 Street 172 (near Street 51, attached to Pontoon Club)
Dinner for four with house wine: $60-$70