The Phnom Penh cuisine scene is plagued by pedestrian restaurants: mid-range, East-West fusion eateries with a European influence. Think quiches, paninis, alongside fish amok and an on-site deli selling fresh food to go. Some of these places are harmless and enjoyable; others project a pretentious, contrived screen of sophistication.
Tonle Bassac’s Cafe La Fête, which recently had its soft opening, falls into the former category. With the owner of the well-established Origami Japanese restaurant at the helm, La Fête combines an unusual mish-mash of French, Italian and Japanese influences to deliver a menu with a largely European character.
Coming from a chef, however, the restaurant’s main menu is disappointingly ordinary: pepperoni pizza ($5), quiche Lorraine ($3), spaghetti bolognese ($4). We ordered the smoked salmon salad with feta cheese ($4) for lunch, as well as Mentai Ko spaghetti ($4), carbonara with marinated roe and scallops in lieu of bacon and eggs. The smoked salmon salad is satisfying enough, although its mundane composition of salmon, feta and veggies will not turn any heads. By contrast, the roe in the creamy Mentai Ko gives the sauce a bumpy texture that is not appealing. Taste wise, it was edible but not groundbreaking. The ham and cheese paninis are equally ordinary. The only exciting element here are the prices: the most expensive main dish is $7, and most items on the menu are in the neighborhood of $4. While it might be dishing out run-of-the-mill food, at least La Fête keeps a lid on prices – unlike some of its competitiors.
The baked goods, made on-site, are delicious – the chocolate tarts ($2) especially so. The freshly baked pizza ($4-5) is also superbly done, with a rich, well-seasoned tomato sauce and a crispy thin base.
Despite its shortcomings, La Fête does provide decent, affordable food. With an experienced proprietor and a good location on Street 294 two blocks east of Norodom Boulevard, the restaurant has the ingredients of success. Given the links with Origami, it would be wise for this chef to get creative and add a stronger Japanese flair to the menu. With a little experimentation, a pedestrian restaurant can pick up the pace.