Cultured dining on ‘Art Street’

Le Museum’s amok: tender fish, creamy sauce and layers of galangal, kaffir and lemongrass.
Le Museum’s amok: tender fish, creamy sauce and layers of galangal, kaffir and lemongrass. Charlotte Pert

Cultured dining on ‘Art Street’

Gallery turned pleasantly worn hangout spot features decor a bit more eclectic than the menu

I’m not sure what the people behind Le Museum were gunning for with the bilingual name. Would Le Musée be just a bit too foreign sounding to lure les anglophone tourists? Or maybe the linguistic mash up is intended as a nod to the restaurant’s “fusion” label. Whatever it is, we’ll forgive the linguistic lapse. Because it turns out that Le Museum is one of the most charming, down-to-earth venues to open in the city of late.

In part, it’s a question of location: situated on the corner of Street 178 and Street 13, the winged facade of the National Museum shadows the terrace tables. Then there’s the decor – the long bar is stocked with a wonderful jumble of artifacts. Some, like the pillar-shaped bar stools, are fake (which is probably for the best) but many are not: antique statues inspired by Hindu and Buddhist iconography dot the terrace, including a bulky stone lingam and yoni carving.

Inside Le Museum.
Inside Le Museum. Charlotte Pert

But it’s the bar’s textures, and rainbow colour palette, that really make it glow: there are glinting gold ornaments, vases of pink lotus flowers, and strips of red overhead lighting that look cosy rather than licentious. At one end, the seating is raised. At the other, you can recline on low slung sofas, whose soft teal colouring is echoed in the worn blue wash of a shutter board window above. Outside, diners sit on wrought iron benches at tables topped with wooden chess boards and Jenga sets.

Despite its jazzy eclecticism, Le Museum eludes kitsch thanks to its pleasantly worn feel. This is partly due to the heavy emphasis on reclaimed materials in the fittings, but also a result of the fact that, while the restaurant is new, the venue is not. Until early 2014, the same space was occupied by Asasax Art Gallery – one of the first exhibition spaces to open on “Art Street”. It’s the eponymous artist Asasax who’s behind the redesign, a fact which will be instantly apparent to anyone familiar with his vibrant, slightly chaotic canvases.

Sadly, what’s on the menu isn’t quite as alluring as what’s around you. The appetizers are a case in point: chips, chicken wings and mini pizzas. Not what you’d expect from a restaurant where your cutlery comes wrapped in perfectly pressed white napkins. Billed as “fusion”, the menu is really an amalgamation of popular dishes from abroad and at home. There are sections dedicated to pizza, pasta and local dishes.

On a largely unsuccessful hunt for the exotic, we plumped for the roasted duck spicy salad with Khmer dressing. Despite the odd missing ingredient (no apples, no shallots) the result was as tasty and fresh as you could hope for from a relatively simple dish. Delicate diners be warned, the salad packs a punch – Khmer dressing apparently means a bit of oil and a lot of chilies.

The dressing on the duck salad packs a spicy punch.
The dressing on the duck salad packs a spicy punch. Charlotte Pert

From the Italian-themed menu, the chorizo and prawn pasta was a safe, hearty option, albeit heavy on the prawns and wafer thin on the chorizo. Where the kitchen did best was on home ground. Fish amok is a dish that varies greatly in quality, and this one was a hit: tender fish, creamy sauce and layers of galangal, kaffir and lemongrass that tingled on every part of your tongue.

Despite the lack of standout options, the attractive presentation, efficient service and the fact that none of our orders cost more than $6 meant it was hard to be anything other than satisfied.

A final mention should go to the cocktail list. Having returned two nights in a row, I can personally vouch for the majority of its offerings, and would like to extend my particular thanks to whichever barman invented the Phnom Penh Sling.

The fruity drink, served in a highball glass, is a thirst-quenching, intoxicating delight of passionfruit and gin. Like everything else, cocktails are very reasonable for this pricey area of town. They cost $3.50, down to $2.50 during happy hour between 5pm and 8pm.

While it might not offer the most interesting food on the strip, there’s so much here to love and linger over at Le Museum that you’re unlikely to mind.

Le Museum is located at #192 Street 178

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