Li Shishi – an eccentric new Italian-Asian eatery on the corner of streets 19 and 172 – was named after China’s most famous escort: a 12th-century Chinese courtesan of the Song dynasty said to have been a favourite of Emperor Huizong. It’s an odd choice of name for an odd sort of place.
“She was a wonderful girl, famous as a singer and ‘showgirl’ ... a strange story ... amazing,” said Italian co-owner Leandro Bisenzi, who is something of an eccentric character himself.
Bisenzi, who is currently at home in Florence, has a background in events management. He founded Florence’s Circo Nero circus and the Superdolly drag show, and claims a long list of celebrity mates ranging from David Guetta to Fatboy Slim to Bob Sinclair.
“This restaurant will be at first a little ‘home’ from where we will plan the next step,” said Bisenzi, adding that he wants to bring his “friends” to perform in the Kingdom.
For now, however, Li Shishi is located in a humble house across the street from Wat Sarawan in Daun Penh.
Its decor is dominated by red lanterns and a large painting of a Chinese courtesan. In the street outside, a female mannequin reclines in a cyclo.
The menu - equal parts Italian and Southeast Asian, with peppery carbonara ($4) and green curry ($3.50) side-by-side – is still a work in progress, but Bisenzi’s business partner Gully Capasso has started making fresh pasta in the mornings.
Royal seafood spaghetti ($12) stuffed with shellfish is available with a day’s notice to procure the produce. The bartenders also make fresh sangria ($4), packed with apples and oranges.
While some restaurants that try to tackle a bit of everything tend to spread themselves thin, both sides of the menu seem to be executed surprisingly well.
Preparations are also under way to bring Bisenzi’s shows to the Kingdom. From April onward, he said, a Russian drag performer from his Circo Nero and Superdolly shows will begin weekend performances on the bar’s tiny stage. Ultimately, said Bisenzi, he would like to bring his own acts to the Kingdom.
“Our stage [is] so small, but I hope it will be lovely anyway to spend time,” he said, adding that anyone is welcome to grab a guitar and go on stage to play some tunes any time of day.
Eventually, said the veteran party organiser, the new eatery will be the spark for greater things, as he plans to be Phnom Penh’s next big nightclub owner.
“I am sure Phnom Penh would enjoy that ... as all in the world,” he said.
Li Shishi is located at the corner of Streets 19 and 172. It is open from 8am-midnight.