Sweet frozen treats mixed up right before your eyes

‘Bombastic aesthetic’: Liquid nitrogen, which freezes liquids in a matter of minutes, is used to make ice cream at Nuk Cafe.
‘Bombastic aesthetic’: Liquid nitrogen, which freezes liquids in a matter of minutes, is used to make ice cream at Nuk Cafe. Eli Meixler

Sweet frozen treats mixed up right before your eyes

Gimmicky liquid nitrogen ice cream distracts from new cafe on Street 154’s best feature – the beautifully designed and spacious setting

Given the decade-long proliferation of fancy dining options in Phnom Penh, it’s surprising that liquid nitrogen has taken so long to arrive in the city. The chemical, which can freeze liquids solid in a matter of minutes, is a longstanding favourite of flamboyant celebrity chefs and TV talent contest hopefuls the world over.

Now, a cafe on Street 154 has beaten its more established rivals to the post. Nuk Cafe offers three – soon to be four – flavours of nitrogen-cooled ice cream, with all mixtures made fresh in the morning, and finished off with a flourish on the spot.

And despite its current low profile, Nuk has more than its ice cream to recommend it. The design of the cafe, which opened at the end of last year, has been executed in luxurious good taste. Heavy industrial fittings are softened by warm lighting and quirky accents such as stencil-cut felt drink mats and coffee-themed wall prints. It’s also spacious: long with high ceilings, and a tiered snug of seating at the back.

Vanilla affogato ice cream.
Vanilla affogato ice cream. Eli Meixler

Upstairs, an airy atelier with floor-length windows has a seating plan suggestive of a chic cocktail bar, with walls decorated with large paintings from an unnamed and apparently unadvertised art show. The barista said that it had so far remained unused, but that he hoped it would soon be buzzing with parties sampling the cafe’s signature sweet dishes.

Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen is a technique with some science to back it up. When you make ice cream using a freezer, the lengthy cooling time means ice crystals may form in the mix.

Liquid nitrogen blasts it so efficiently that it sidesteps the possibility of any frosty crunch. Of course, the crystals present in good quality ice cream are miniscule, and not something that give those of us with a sweet tooth much pause for thought.

The main appeal of liquid nitrogen is undoubtedly its bombastic aesthetic, and Nuk Cafe knows that. Their three slick blenders are situated in pride of place at the entrance, and if you ask nicely and the cafe is quiet, staff will let you play the mad scientist yourself.

The three flavours on offer – vanilla affogato ($3.80), choc-brownie, and green tea (both $3.50) – are stored in individual clamp-top jars behind the counter. The technique is simple: pour a slushy pot into the mixer, and slowly add a jug of liquid nitrogen into the whirring bowl. Billowing clouds of vapour mean you have to hear rather than see your progress. It takes a surprising amount of time, and liquid nitrogen, to reach the point where the hardened ice cream thumps satisfyingly against the side of the bowl.

Nuk is innovative in its presentation as well as its preparation. The vanilla ice cream is coated with crunched up cookies and drowned in a fresh shot of espresso, and the chocolate has brownies mixed into it and sits on a bed of coco cheerios. Most unusual is the green tea, whose delicate sweetness is steamrollered by a base of sugar-coated cornflakes. The side dish of red beans cooked for six hours is certainly unusual, but probably worth giving a miss.

The staff at Nuk Cafe claim that their chefs have been fastidious in crafting a recipe that maximises flavour – putting lots of eggs into the mix, and using cream rather than milk. Not much of this comes through. Quality coffee makes the affogato a runaway success but, elsewhere, flavours are somewhat muted, perhaps because the mixture’s so cold.

The classy aesthetic gives Nuk the potential to be far more than a purveyor of novelty treats. But man cannot live on nitrogen-freezed ice cream alone, and the venue’s other menu options – a few cakes and half-bite sized sandwiches for $1.50 – leave little scope for snacking. But with expanded food options, it’s easy to imagine this become a popular spot for lunching friends, or relaxed business meetings. And for romancing couples, gazing doe-eyed at each other over the foggy ooze of the ice cream mixers seems like a novelty date opportunity not to be missed.

Nuk Cafe is located at #16 Street 154.

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