At Labaab, a new restaurant close to Vattanac Capital tower, designer and owner Rith Yoeun has transplanted a 19th-century Battambang-style design into a Phnom Penh dining room, serving up a medley of cuisines running the length of the lower Mekong.
From the outside, there is no indication that above a pharmacy on the second floor of a building on a commercial stretch of Street 110 is a replica of the grand wooden houses that used to be common in Northwestern Cambodia.
The brainchild of Rith Yoeun, a civil engineer and designer educated in the United States, Labaab restaurant is an homage to Battambang’s historic homes and to the cultural traditions along the Mekong River.
Yoeun, a 29-year-old Stanford alumni and the CEO of a local design company, and his team spent seven months planning his venture before the official opening of Labaab, a “Mekong fusion” restaurant serving up dishes from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
The most challenging part of preparing the restaurant was to select the theme for the design.
While struggling with this decision, some of his friends who study architecture told him about the unique homes in Battambang, which date back to the province’s “Lordship Era”. Yoeun visited those houses in the country’s northwest, hoping to find inspiration for the décor.
The “Lordship Era” is a period between 1795 and 1907, during which Battambang was under Siam’s (or modern-day Thailand’s) control. During the period, a Khmer official named Pen was appointed the governor of Battambang by the king of Siam, and his family ruled over the province for six generations, until it was handed back to Cambodia in 1907.
“We called this period the ‘Lordship Era’ because the local people at that time addressed Pen and his male relatives as Lok Mchas, or ‘Lord’,” says Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist.
During this era, Battambang was a melting pot, and the local culture was mostly shaped by the combination of Khmer and Siamese culture, while Vietnamese, Chinese, and other ethnic groups who settled there contributed to a dynamic cultural blend. The accommodations in the province at that time, which according to Manara were a sign of the owners’ social status, show this multicultural influence.
The historic houses scattered all over the province were built entirely of wood, with intricate carvings – or kbach chomlak – throughout, and their style and solidity fascinated Yoeun. Almost immediately when he saw them, he decided that they were the perfect theme for his restaurant.
“When I entered one of them for the first time, I felt a sense of peacefulness and calmness from its hybrid internal design,” Yoeun says. “It is mostly similar to other Khmer traditional houses but some woodwork and artwork is Thai, Vietnamese, or Chinese. I believe it was a house of a lord or a wealthy man. ”
“As a Cambodian, I value Khmer culture and styles very much but I also appreciate the melting pot culture and styles. In terms of design, sometimes when you mix two or more completely different things together, the result could be unexpectedly wonderful.”
The theme also fits the menu at Labaab, which carries cuisines from the Southeast Asian countries through which the Mekong River flows. Yoeun and his Vietnamese business partner Vincent Nguyen, intent on originality, see the name – which refers to the fertile soil left by the flowing river – as the best substitute for Mekong, a broadly used name for restaurants and other institutions throughout the region.
“The Water Festival, which is held in November every year, is to pay tribute to the Mekong River, which brings fertile soil for Cambodia’s extensive farming, which for centuries has been the backbone of the people’s livelihood,” Yoeun says. “To us, it is the best representative of the relation between the people and the rivers.”
At a glance, Labaab almost resembles a dining room of a Battambang lord, incorporating an open plan and wood carvings. Soft jazz music, contemporary photography and of course air conditioning give it an old-meets-new feeling.
Throughout the restaurant are objects that represent the river. At the entrance, the first thing that hits the eye is a collection of agricultural products, like grains of unhusked rice, string beans, cabbage, papaya and so on, as well as farming gear. The walls are decorated with traditional bamboo fishing equipment, including fish traps, cages and nets.
The food, meanwhile, is beautifully presented and eclectic. The most popular dishes include samlor kako ($5.80), a Khmer soup consisting of a spice and herb paste, fish paste, fish, pork or chicken and vegetables, and amok ($6.20), the steamed fish curry with coconut and galangal, two of the signature dishes of Cambodia. Other popular dishes include the fried quail eggs with ground fish ($5.50) from Ho Chi Minh City and steamed stuffed pork and snail with lemongrass ($4.50) from the southern region of Vietnam.
Chef Hang Sopheanorak, who has years of culinary experience from working in restaurants and hotels around the city, praised the nutritious value of the cuisine, which mostly consists of vegetables and fish.
But the main attraction is how unexpected Labaab is amid the concrete and exhaust fumes of the city.
“We have a very peaceful, relaxing place with healthy, delicious food, and people could never expect that it is in an old building in a busy, crowded neighbourhood,” Yoeun says.
Labaab restaurant is located on the second floor at #81 Monivong Blvd across from the Bank of China building. It is open every day from 11am to 11pm. Tel: 099 335 666