At night walking through the forbidding rabbit warren between Sothearos and Norodom boulevards, 21 Bar is a welcoming sight. Set in Street 21 villa’s courtyard under a broad longan tree hung with bamboo lanterns, the bar’s sound system bumps out low-key tunes while a mixed crowd of Cambodians, expats and backpackers sip cocktails and nosh on pub staples.
The friendly watering hole is the latest venture of Cambodian entrepreneur Meak Bunt, 41, whose other properties include the fine-diner Caravan, Khmer restaurant Emoz and the rotisserie chicken joint Chicky.
The place is reminiscent of the Tuol Sleng area’s Show Box, but with less rough edges, or maybe an outdoor version of the nearby Red Bar.
Casa de la especia
“I made this one when I was in Mexico just playing around with different ingredients left over in the kitchen. I call it casa de la especia – which translates to something like house of heat or spice. I muddle a little bit of chilli with some coriander, lime juice, sugar and tequila. Then I shake it up and pour it over ice and top it off with soda.”
“This one is a little bit of a twist on an espresso martini. I call it an ‘After Eight’. It’s just an espresso martini with crème de menthe and I pour it into a tall glass with a little bit of ice and then garnish with mint. So it’s just like one of those After Eight dinner mints.”
“This one I made up the other night. I couldn’t think of a name, but I was speaking to all the customers who were buying it, and they said, “Well, we keep asking for one more, so call it moi tiet”. It’s fresh coconut, coconut meat, coriander and mint, which I blend all together. The alcohol is Havana dark rum and a little bit of Malibu. I pour it over ice, garnished with coriander and lime.”
With late opening hours, during its first month it has been talked about mainly as a good spot for those seeking “moi tiet” after closing time at the nearby Samai Distillery or Street 308’s Bassac Lane bars, but folk are quickly warming to the joint as a good drinking destination of its own.
Bunt – who’s been a tradesman, NGO worker, hotel manager, real estate developer and more – initially planned just to live in the big rented villa, but saw in the garden courtyard potential for more.
“It was such a nice spot with all these plants,” he said. “It just seemed like a good place for a bar.”
Even after opening the business, he has continued to live in the house. He said he didn’t really mind having revellers in such close proximity to his living quarters.
“I like to be around people,” he said. “I go out every night anyway.”
The food – cooked by Bunt’s brother – is classic but tasty fare, a mix of Western staples such as burgers, sandwiches and salads, all well presented.
“It’s just simple food that we think people would like to eat while they drink,” said Bunt.
The kebab skewers with pepper sauce ($6) use juicy, tender cubes of Australian beef, and the satisfying club sandwich ($2.50) comes with perfectly crispy French fries ($2.50 on their own).
The citrusy chicken salad with banana flowers ($4.50) is probably the most exotic thing on the menu, and the steak (again imported from Australia) is flavoursome and good value at $8.
But it’s really the drinks that you would go to 21 Bar for rather than the food, and the emphasis is on the cocktails. Cocky young mixologist and bar manager Brok Lutze, 23, serves up a range of classics ($3.75) plus a few of his own creations (see sidebar). Cambodia draft beer is reasonably priced at $1.25 a glass or $5 for a jug.
Lutze – an Australian from Adelaide with a bad case of itchy feet who learned cocktail making while travelling around Nicaragua and Mexico – only arrived in Cambodia a few weeks ago and got his current job after wandering in off the street to have a drink.
“I was just walking by on my way to another bar and the courtyard looked very inviting, so I came in, started talk to Bunt and he gave me a job,” he said.
It’s that sort of laissez-faire attitude that permeates 21 Bar – relaxed, willing to take a bit of a risk – and makes it such an attractive place to hang out.
21 Bar is located at #11e Street 21. Tel: 010 235 630.