It’s just over the border, and yet for many people living in Vietnam, the Cambodian capital remains a mystery. Owen Salisbury goes on a foodie tour of Phnom Penh and discovers that when it comes to dining, this city is in a world of its own
The restaurant scene in Phnom Penh is exploding. With nearly 1,000 restaurants listed on TripAdvisor — up from half that only a couple years ago — you can find almost any type of food imaginable at low to reasonable prices.
Some of it is world-class.
Over the course of approximately 10 trips in the last five years, I have come up with list of what I think are the best restaurants in Phnom Penh. These categories are not hard and fast, but reflect my biases and experiences.
The Tiger’s Eye
The brainchild of South African Chef Timothy Bruyns, The Tiger’s Eye is the second iteration of The Common Tiger. Chef Tim spent years cooking in France, at jet-set resorts and on private islands in the Seychelles before opening The Common Tiger — his first restaurant — at the tender age of 31.
A whirlwind of dazzling, dynamic food, The Tiger’s Eye is beginning to gain the respect it deserves. Recently opened for breakfast, the restaurant’s re-creation also saw changes to its menu. Though still based on what’s fresh in the market that day, the menu also includes a stable roster of favourites as well as constantly evolving specials.
Personal favourites include brined pork chops with marinated soy beans and smoked tuna.
Overall, The Tiger’s Eye is reasonably priced, with entrees as low as US$9 (VND203,000), but it’s oh-so-easy to spend more, as everything tastes simply incredible. Starters to salads, entrees to desserts, cocktails to coffee, I’ve yet to have a single bite that was less than delicious.
If you truly love food, treat yourself to the US$55 (VND1.24 million) tasting menu and prepare to experience foodvana. It’s easily one of my favourite dining experiences of all time.
The Tiger’s Eye is located at 49 Samdech Sothearos, Phnom Penh, just south of the Independence Monument
The Chinese House
The only restaurant to give The Tiger’s Eye a run for its money, the newly reopened Chinese House is pretty far off from downtown. Located in a historic building, it looks like an opium den converted to a low-key discotheque.
Run by a South African couple, manager Taki and chef Amy — winner of Iron Chef Thailand — blast Asian fusion cuisine into a parallel universe. No other restaurant has the brass to offer samosas, banh xeo and bun cha next to carpaccio and cheese plates. Asian Contemporary? Pan Pacific? Labels simply cannot do it justice. Personally, I recommend the duck — one of the juiciest duck breasts I’ve ever eaten.
Less than a year old, the place is still changing its menu and style, but drink and nibble at small plates downstairs or sit down to full dinners in the vault-ceilinged upper floor.
The Chinese House is located at 45 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, in a protected building constructed in 1905
Any list of winners will still have a loser. Sorry, Kaviar — set in a historic building and decorated with a Persian-inflected sumptuousness, the food simply didn’t live up to the reputation, the ambience or the price.
While not exactly bad, one does not expect bog-standard La Ortega-brand tortillas o be served with a trio of fragrant yogurt dips, nor for them to be so ill-served by the choice of bread. The chicken was the star; subtly spiced, dusted with char and as juicy as a Georgia peach. The beef was overcooked and dry, and the salad came with a ketchup-and-mayo dressing.
The dessert soufflé earned them back some respect, a fluffy treat that dissolved perfectly into the Freixenet Cava Nevada I ordered.
Expect a multi-course dinner to run US$50 (VND1.13 million) and up per person, not including wine.
Kaviar is located at the corner of Street 55 and Street 242, Phnom Penh, in the historic Residence of King Norodom Suramarit
The grand old man of French restaurants in Phnom Penh, Topaz opened in 1997. The once-tiny family restaurant moved in December to a space that looks more like an art museum than an eatery.
Priced accordingly, the best way to dine there without torturing your wallet is their US$20+ set lunch (VND450,000). Choices vary, but everything I’ve tried — from duck breast to roast beef — was excellent, classic French cuisine done right. Dinner goes for more like US$50 (VND1.13 million) per person, or potentially much more, given their caviar-and-lobster style.
With little touches like warm bread and butter in chilled stone boxes and wildly creative amuse-bouches I’ve yet to see repeated, Topaz kills it with the Western crowd, particularly the well-heeled and well-connected.
Service is quick and unobtrusive. Topaz also boasts a superior wine selection and spirits to match.
Topaz is located at 162 Preah Norodom, Phnom Penh.
Topaz may be the leader, but Open Wine is the popular favourite and offers the best value for money. Their three-course US$12 (VND270,000) set lunch doesn’t include booze, but with a price that low, you can afford to indulge yourself a little with a glass of cab sauv or an après-lunch glass of calvados.
Also popular with the diplomatic crowd, Open Wine is considerably lower-key than Topaz, perfect for long, lazy lunches with a paperback.
The décor isn’t anything special, but the service is great and the food a positive steal.
The cuisine is more southwest France than classical Parisian, but has plenty of favourites and a weekly specials menu. The chef reputedly returned from a six-month refresher course, cooking in some of the finer kitchens in France.
Try the carpaccio and the pork filet with mustard sauce and potato croquettes.
Open Wine is located at 219 Street 19, Phnom Penh, right next to the Royal Palace
Connected in some way to the Royal palace — no one I asked ever told the same story — La Rez is a beautiful, chic respite from the heat and hustle of the capital’s streets. Clearly, one could come here for a truly swank dinner, but La Rez’s set lunches define the higher end of that market.
Choose either the regular three-course menu for US$17 (VND378,000), or the three-course gourmet for US$32 (VND712,000). Either way, the chefs turn a suave hand to 21st-century French cuisine. For a starter, definitely try the pea soup with cappuccino cream, and follow up with the chicken roulade.
Not included in the set lunch, their foie gras selections are their crowning glory; it’s die-happy level indulgence.
One of the most beautiful restaurants on the list, so take some time to look at the sculpted gardens outside or sit under the waterfall as you dine. Be sure to check out the carefully selected objets d’art scattered throughout the space.
Prices for anything outside the menu are high — like US$5 (VND111,000) for water — so be watchful. But hey, even with lunch, you’re not here to pinch pennies.
La Residence is located at No. 22-24 Samdach Pan Avenue (Street 214), Phnom Penh. It also features private dining rooms and a Salon de Thé
Good for Anything
No list of the best of Phnom Penh would be complete without Malis, a high-end imagining of Khmer food that is eminently reasonable in price and exquisitely beautiful in location.
For the best experience, ask to sit in the garden and enjoy the splashing fountains, pools and smiling statue of the Buddha. It would be more peaceful if it was less crowded, but I’m happy to see Malis take in the customers; it’ll still be there next time I want to go.
Another place that serves an excellent duck breast, Malis also has some interesting cocktails featuring local ingredients. Be sure to try their signature dessert, a mousse with jasmine flowers and honey over fruit.
Service is efficient and friendly, and they are happy to help you navigate the intricacies of Khmer cuisine.
Malis is located at 136 Preah Norodom (Street 41), Phnom Penh. If you want to eat dinner at a normal time, make reservations especially on weekends
Bassac Lane is home to half a dozen up-and-coming restaurants, but one stands out; Luigi’s serves authentic Italian food with a kind of manic insistence on quality over everything else.
Looking as though a teleporter accident fused a sleepy Napolitano pizzeria with a Cambodian café, Luigi’s features a standard array of pizzas, pastas, desserts and digestifs.
The deli counter crammed between counter and door is special, as is the marvellous selection of imported cheese and meat crammed therein. Whatever they don’t import, they make in-house to amazing effect.
The pizzas are thin-crust perfection, with a hint of char on the bottom, sweetly acidic tomato sauce and bubbling-hot mozzarella.
Portions are large and prices reasonable, but the café itself is tiny, so it’s easy for supper to end with your elbow in your neighbour’s tiramisu.
Luigi’s is located at M36 Street 308, Phnom Penh, near Bassac Lane
You know a restaurant is good when the only thing your girlfriend wants from Phnom Penh is one of their pizzas. More than once have I bought two to go just before hopping on the bus; one for her, and one for the road.
The first restaurant I ate at in Phnom Penh and until recently my favourite authentic Italian place in Southeast Asia, I make a point to go back most visits. The pizza diavola is terrific, as is the pizza carbonara. Limoncello isn’t just a pizzeria, of course; their pasta is amazingly authentic, and they have a small but respectable stock of Italian wines to match.
They also have the best homemade limoncello this side of Campania, which goes brilliantly with their panna cotta and a dash of espresso.
Not the most elegant or fashionable place to dine, Limoncello is here because the food is consistently terrific, full stop.
Limoncello is located at 81 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, around the corner from the Giant Ibis Bus Terminal in case you have a few hours to kill
Staring Into TheTiger’s Eye
Charismatic, tattooed and handsome, Timothy Bruyns, the 34-year-old South African chef and owner of The Tiger’s Eye, doesn’t look like your average chef and restaurateur.
His first version of The Tiger’s Eye — The Common Tiger — gained a nearly cult-like following but also some surprisingly vitriolic reviews. His cooking style is so eclectic and improvisational, that it’s almost a love-it-or-hate-it affair.
Tim dropped out of university and abandoned a smooth path to the corporate world because he couldn’t muster any passion for it.
Odd-jobbing in restaurants led to cooking, and working long hours for poor wages in his native South Africa. Before long, his wandering feet and obvious culinary talents led him to grander jobs in more refined kitchens.
Almost like some kind of TV Shaolin monk, Chef Tim spent a decade wandering the earth and learning to cook. After cheffing in the UK, France and Tanzania, Tim worked at a private island in the Seychelles where he cooked for celebrities from around the world, including Robert de Niro.
He also possesses one trait often overlooked by even serious gourmets; pedigree. Tim worked at the Singita Hotel, one of whose chefs apprenticed at Troisgros, a Michelin 3-star since 1968 and one of the more influential restaurants of the last century.
Chef Tim’s not there yet, but with time, with his creativity and passion, there’s no telling what he’ll achieve.