‘Something interesting is happening at the high end of the sushi trade” in New York, writes Pete Wells in the Times, as he lamented that our collective rise out from under the pandemic after two years has caused omakase restaurants in the city to be fully booked up to six months in advance.
Though the same level of skill and intrigue could be argued for the omakase landscape here in Phnom Penh, I waltz into this location with just a pleasant couple next to me during my lunch service. This understated nature sets the stage for what I will say now is a hidden gem. I am at KYŌ – which means “fanciful surprise” – the brainchild of the entrepreneurs behind the ubiquitous Tube Coffee and cocktail bar Domrey Lounge, and Kentaro Katsumata, who serves as the executive chef of the 16-seater omakase that opened just prior to the onslaught of pandemic-induced restaurant closures.
Early on a sleepy Saturday afternoon in February, the traffic on Street 174 is minimal, with the occasional street food vendor calling out. But inside this sleek, wood-paneled omakase joint, another level of life is happening. I am treated to the Platinum Set ($278), an 18-dish, two-hour sitting that brings me through a journey of sea, land, and ice. Upon entering the dining space, I’m greeted by Kentaro and his chefs, and next to him, a prized leg of Pata Negra ham proudly displayed. Momentarily I’m preoccupied with whether I will be able to taste it, when, and in what form.
But I have no time to entertain those thoughts, greeted as I am by a refreshingly tangy yuzu soda. While I sip, Kentaro wastes no time running through his wide culinary range in a brief explainer on his gourmet heritage, which fuses edomae-style ingredients found in the Tokyo (Edo) bay – and accordingly, the city’s omakases – with artful creativity.
The opening gambit, monkfish liver sprinkled with an explosive garnish of spring onion, radish, and what he calls “house sauce”, is swiftly followed by one of his signature dishes, a single crab croquette topped off with generous shavings of truffle. Both dishes manage to taste moreish and familiar, a warm, welcoming introduction which ends on a smooth and delicate linger on the tongue.
For Kentaro, becoming a chef wasn’t a foregone conclusion, though his father is one, too. Originally trained in oil painting at art school in the US, he shows serious dedication to gastronomic artistry through the painstakingly careful plating of his dishes. Pincer pliers methodically pluck petals from a flower and delicately place them onto wagyu beef cutlets. Everything is done with great care and precision, making his preparation as much a part of the experience as the tasting of the food itself.
Kentaro wandered into the field of high end cooking almost by chance, his father suggesting he try his hand at Japanese cuisine, where he’s stayed for the rest of his career thus far. Starting off at an old-style Japanese restaurant, he worked his way from Tokyo to New York, where he honed his skills for two years before coming to Cambodia in 2020, immediately demonstrating said skills by diving into home delivered high-end dining during the government-mandated, city-wide restaurant closures.
Taking a year and a half to research and understand the Cambodian palette prior to opening KYŌ, Kentaro and his Cambodian partners eventually found their niche catering to the appetites of the Kingdom’s residents eager for new dining experiences within familiar flavor profiles.
Bill, one of the partners, tells me about the very light, Cambodia-centric adaptations they’ve made in the menu for their patrons, which, hearteningly, he estimates are “80-90% Cambodians”: the sushi rice is lightly spiced, and the miso soup has the option of a slice of lime, for instance, to reflect the very Khmer lust for sour soups. Of course, these are optional additions should one elect for a totally Edomae-style experience – which the courses offer in good supply.
These tweaks work spectacularly, being citric, acidic touches at just about the right interludes. They cut through the oftentimes lavishly rich dishes: abalone slathered with a helping of liver sauce, and creamy, yet delicately crisp lobster spring roll being standouts.
Kentaro speaks modestly about having had offers to work in perhaps the more glamourous of culinary cities, naming restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong. But it was his love of Cambodia, its cuisine and its people, as well as the opportunity to start something of his own to “bring his career to the next level” – he is also a shareholder at KYŌ – that spurred him into making a mark here in Phnom Penh.
You can feel that this is a project he’s fully invested himself in. It’s as much about the quiet intensity of what’s going on around him and his chefs, as it is about the food itself. Machines whir and hum pleasantly beneath the warm piped pop music. Chefs confer about the next menu, ostensibly for dinner service, pointing at different sushi with a degree of studiousness, like a script reading for a rehearsal. Kentaro shows me some of them on a dog-eared book that’s been very well-thumbed. “This is the geoduck you’re eating,” he says, proudly.
It becomes clear very early on, too, that provenance of his food sources is extremely important for Kentaro. He takes pains to explain where each ingredient comes from: the sea urchin and crab of the croquette, from Hokkaido, and the lobster of the spring roll, from Chiba prefecture, for instance. Though stylistically an homage to Tokyo omakases, all of the country’s ingredients and regions are thoughtfully highlighted like a Visit Japan postcard.
“In Japan, sushi is finger food,” Kentaro reassures and encourages me early, and often, throughout the lunch service. He opts for an immersive approach to omakase, throwing formality out the window in favour of fun. Nothing is too complicated, even if many of the dishes have light instructions and suggestions on how they could be consumed. He demonstrates the swirling of a palette cleanser – an umami-rich concoction in an oversized test tube, instructing me to give it a shake and a whir to mix it all up before downing it. At one point, he whips up a vinegar mackerel roll and simply hands it to me, the intermediary of my very friendly and attentive server dissipating. It’s innovative and interactive gastronomy that’s served by someone who doesn’t need to rehearse it because, as corny as it sounds, he lives it.
Theatricality is another keyword of the meal. Waiting for me to look up, Kentaro steps onto the stage, so to speak: lifting a spray bottle to a crusted Japanese bread slice topped with a generous serving of sea urchin, he gives it a light spritz of gold dust that floats away cinematically. Then, midway through a meditative, trance-like chew, I’m shook to attention by the sound of a blowtorch… that sears a slice of tuna that is then layered with gold leaf. And I must note now that gold in its various forms does feature in a few dishes. Sure, this kind of performance has the trappings of Salt Bae; yet, the genuine thought and care of what’s underneath it whizzes those ideas out the window. And, dammit, they do actually look beautiful.
Omakase may literally translate to “leaving it up to you”, yet serious thought is given to the customer’s preferences. Though I do leave the experience very full, care was taken throughout – “small rice?” Kentaro asks, showing me a cute ball of carby goodness, to make sure I have room for whatever was next.
And then, the pièce de resistance. Kentaro shifts the leg of ham in full view and brandishes a sword, slicing it in fine and highly practiced, samurai-like movements. I do the honours of rolling and wrapping up the sea urchin, which has been laid out pristinely on the slice of Pata Negra ham. The richness lands on my tongue like soft velvet with a kick of saltiness.
The ubiquitous rise of high quality Japanese restaurants in the Kingdom – increasingly as joint ventures between the Japanese and Cambodians, as in the case of KYŌ – makes one draw parallels to culinary diplomacy. Bill speaks with pride about the omakase being a relatively homegrown business venture, and reveals the trio’s plans to launch more outposts for fresh, quality ingredients. He gestures to an all-wagyu joint and ramen shop being planned just next door. It’s a bilateral relationship for the ages, and one I’ll enthusiastically wave flags for.
Amid the fog created from the ice cream machine, out comes dessert, a single, luscious – not to mention ginormous – strawberry wrapped up as a mochi and topped with homemade truffle ice cream. Elegant would be an apt way to sum up this masterclass in simplicity and dramatism. I mentioned earlier that it’s a hidden gem – what you do with hidden gems is you don’t wait. I advise a booking at the soonest opportunity.
Ashley Hui Yin Tan