Vishnu Das, head mixologist at the new bar and bistro Villa Oeno, dropped six perfectly formed ice-cubes into his mixing beaker, added fresh lime juice and three spoonfuls of pre-made Mai Tai, which had been aged for a month in a 5-litre American-made oak barrel, and then strained it all into a crystal Riedel glass.
Das then placed his spin on the classic cocktail onto the clean bar with the soft care and practiced ease of an Air Force One pilot touching down.
Villa Oeno, situated on the corner of Street 240 and Street 19 near the Royal Palace, opened its doors in January. The three-storey spot offers upscale dining and boozing with live music and an expansive wine collection featuring more than 250 bottles.
The first floor of the venue is a bistro: an airy dining room populated by red-shirted waiters, with a good-sized bar, two mezzanines and a small see-in kitchen manned by Cambodian cooks in erect toques. The main cooking area, which employs about 20 people, occupies the third floor.
On the floor between is the wine and cocktail bar, where Das reigns supreme. The floor also has dining tables, a pleasant outdoor seating area with potted plants and a water wall and the impressive wine larder, Oeno’s crown jewel.
According to the bistro’s Dutch marketing manager Elisabeth Noorman, Oeno, which is “short for oenology”, the study of wine, is ultimately all about the vino.
“We want to make the wine an experience in itself,” said the impeccably polite, red-dressed Noorman. “We want to get people out of their comfort zones, to pair new wines with new dishes.”
House sommelier Dara Khat is the point man in that department, helping diners navigate the lengthy wine list. But there is no need to feel intimidated. There is something for almost every drinker, from $4-a-glass Chilean chardonnay to a 1990 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at $855 for the bottle.
“We also have the best smoothies in town,” quipped Das from behind the bar. (He could be right about that, for $3 a glass.)
“And our blenders are completely silent,” added Noorman with pride.
The quiet blenders are one of many particularly considerate features of the venue. There’s also the flavour-enhancing drinking glasses, the wheelchair-accessible bathroom, the selection of waters imported from Europe, the multigrain crepe dough, the clay pizza oven and the private rooms equipped with their own stereo systems.
A deli and coffee bar are forthcoming. “And tapas,” added Noorman. “We also have tapas.” But it is the bar that seems to be the real draw.
Das, Oeno’s leader of libations, is a southern Indian freshly arrived to Phnom Penh by way of Dubai. Sharply dressed with brylcreemed hair and the studied confidence of a man who has spent countless hours behind fancy bars, he outlined his approach to booze.
“I like making slight variations from the classics,” he said. A ginger mojito, “topped with hibiscus tea”, was his latest creation. Along with the Mai Thai, Das was oak-barrel ageing his own negroni, too.
At $4.50, Das said that Oeno’s cocktails were nearly five times cheaper than drinks at the Pure Sky Lounge, a bar on the 35th floor of the Dubai Hilton where he worked for five years prior to moving here. It was there, among moneyed Saudis and panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf, that the boyish bartender began his strivings toward spirituous excellence.
His bartending ethos made him a good fit for Oeno, it seemed, who were in pursuit of nothing short of perfection.
Yet, despite its general air of refinement, Oeno is not exorbitantly priced. The international menu has chicken burritos with fries and a salad for $6, a steak sandwich with Australian striploin and sides for $7.50 and green papaya salad for $4.50, among others.
There are more expensive options, such as the salmon gravlax for $12 or the black chicken and Chinese herb soup at $12.50, but most are reasonable.
“Everyone should be welcome here,” Noorman said as she flashed a grin.
Villa Oeno is located at #19-21 Street 240. It is open seven days a week from 11am until 11pm. Call 023 990 951 for reservations.