Mansour Choueri, the 62-year-old Lebanese owner and chef of new bistro Aroma Mediterranean Cuisine on Street 13, has lots of energy.
He speaks in long, often tangential streams, illustrated with sweeping hand gestures or attention-grabbing table taps, and coloured with dramatic declarations: “I cook with all my heart … never in my life I copy anyone … when I die, I will die in Cambodia.”
Choueri, who has lived in the Kingdom for nine years after first visiting on holiday, knows several languages, all Mediterranean: French, Italian and his mother-tongue, Arabic. His English is accented by all three. When he calls to the waitress for more pita, which he does frequently, he yells the word with gusto, the ‘r’ enunciated as a strident ‘l’.
Aroma is his 13th restaurant. Nine of them were in Paris, where he says he also ran a successful nut import-export business (“Big, big business”).
Choueri is nearly bald, with a wide forehead, light beard, thick carpenter hands and large, expressive eyes. He lived in the French capital for nearly two decades while raising his only child, Alexandra.
She still lives there, as a filmmaker, but has advised her father in the crafting of Aroma, designing the menu, parts of the interior and managing the Facebook page. “It is not possible one night I sleep without calling her,” says a sentimental Choeuri, tapping his smartphone. “I see only my daughter in the world.”
Aroma, opened two months ago caddy-corner to the National Museum, is Choueri’s fourth restaurant in Phnom Penh after Le Libal, Tower Pizza and another Lebanese eatery, Beirut. It is a modestly sized spot, with a handful of tables inside, hanging lamps, and a pleasant deck area with some seating and a row of potted plants as a barrier against the neighbouring Panda Mart.
“I like Cambodia. Really, I like,” Choueri insists over a pumpkin-coloured smoothie of cucumber, celery, beet, carrot, ginger and turmeric ($3). The drink is “very good for energy”, he assures. There are also $3.50 cocktails, like the espresso martini and Khmer margarita (tequila, lime, mint, basil), as well as a number of coffee beverages.
Dinner comes in quick waves, until the table is cluttered with small, ceramic bowls of smoky baba ghanoush, falafel, tabbouleh, kebbe boulette, minced beef and lamb with pine nuts, velvety hummus and even velvetier labneh, a sour cream spread. It is a meal of bright colours and varied textures – Choueri believes food must look good.
Most plates are garnished with sprigs of mint or pepper slices. “Tapas Lebanese,” Choeuri calls the spread, or “mezzes” on the menu, an assortment of small plates served with fresh pita, from $8.50-$32 based on portion sizes.
“If I give you one tabbouleh, you bored. People like tasting more. I think this idea, why not?” explains Choueri. “Eat with your hands ... better.”
Choueri says Aroma is the first of his restaurants where he is taking a lead role in the cooking. The kitchen is smaller then his last few places and he can handle it. “All me, cooking,” he explains, before taking a drag of his cigarette.
Until now, the culinary arts were just a hobby for him, he says, something Choueri had done for himself and to entertain friends. Previous restaurants were regarded mostly as business enterprises.
Cooking always reminds Choueri of his mother, he says, whose dishes Aroma uses. Much of the ingredients he must import from Lebanon. They are village recipes, from the Bekaa Valley where Choueri grew up, an idyllic farming region in eastern Lebanon known in Roman times as the “breadbasket of the Empire”.
That was where Choueri came of age, in a mostly Christian village with six sisters and two brothers. His father operated a gravel truck. “Not poor, not rich,” he says of his childhood. “Never papa borrow money.”
Choueri says he has not been back to Lebanon since 2006. He does not seem sentimental about it. When asked about lingering homesickness, Choueri laughs and says he misses Paris.
Then his eyes fall and assess the table – the tabbouleh, the baba ghanoush, the hummus, the labneh. He looks up and shouts to the waitress for yet more pita and then with a warm smile: “Akun.”
Aroma Mediterranean Cuisine is located at #186 Street 13. The restaurant’s hours are 10am until 11pm, seven days a week. Tel: 086 268 081.