In pursuit of the perfect bar

New Tuol Tompoung gastropub Alchemy serves up cocktails with top-shelf liquor.
New Tuol Tompoung gastropub Alchemy serves up cocktails with top-shelf liquor. Athena Zelandonii

In pursuit of the perfect bar

It was early evening, and Jay Miller was standing in front of his nearly open gastropub, Alchemy, surveying the front courtyard. A full cocktail was in his hand – the first made behind the bar.

“This has been a year and a half in the making,” said bar manager James Reihl.

Miller took a sip. “Tasty,” he said with a grin.

The New York native opened Brooklyn Pizza and Bistro, just a stone’s throw from Alchemy on Street 123, just south of Russian Market, in 2013 – and added a bakery, Posh Nosh, last year. But for the past couple of years, he’s also been nailing down every detail of the two-storey Khmer house he’s converted into his next project: from the carefully designed interior to the stacked menu.

The result is an ambitious space unlike any in the city. For starters, Alchemy has the capacity to fit 200 patrons easily, 300 standing. It has two full bars, two green courtyards, 44 cocktails and 18 beer taps that are connected through underground pipes to a cold room with imported Vietnamese craft brews. (Alchemy will also offer a large selection of Belgian bottles, including La Chouffes and Duvels.)

Head bartender Visith Yimnay.
Head bartender Visith Yimnay. Athena Zelandonii

The gastropub’s food menu is, like Brooklyn’s, largely American – but takes inspiration from Miller’s experience abroad, from Istanbul to India. A few highlights: mezze platters, a Southern fried chicken sandwich, stuffed zucchini blossoms, and a range of brunch options for the weekend. The courtyard will also feature a full barbecue. All appetisers will come in under $5, and all main dishes under $10.

Alchemy is the latest and largest late-night spot to open in Tuol Tompoung in recent months, and – if it draws the anticipated crowd – could help to cement the neighbourhood as a counterweight to Phnom Penh’s more traditional hot spots, and the up-and-coming ones. It’s not yet clear just who the crowd will be.

“We really want to focus on the local expat demographic, but we’ve been getting a lot of feedback from Cambodian [neighbours], too,” said Miller.

As a long-time business owner in the area, he’s aware of its particularities, and said Alchemy would make adjustments, including late hours, according to local feedback.

This week, Post Weekend took a seat at the long – albeit empty – bar downstairs as Reihl, the bar manager, tested out a few drinks (his “French Vanillatini” and a simple mint julep). He has worked on the project from the beginning, and spent the past three months alone designing a signature cocktail list. Unlike the drinks lists at some of the city’s craft-cocktail bars, some of Alchemy’s offerings start at just $3.50 – and all use top-shelf liquor. The priciest is $7.50.

For all the trappings, both Miller and Reihl say that Alchemy will be anything but pretentious. “We want it to be a Cheers-type place, where everybody knows you and you kind of have your spot,” Miller explained. “This is not a special-occasion place.”

And Alchemy could certainly up the game in Phnom Penh’s ever-growing scene – in practice and planning. In describing the sound system, the macaroni and cheese and a few other objects, Miller kept repeating himself: “We over-engineered that.”

Alchemy is located at 36 Street 123, and is set to open within the next two weeks.

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