Mention Cambodia and culinary finesse is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to mind. But a visit to Phnom Penh reveals a bubbling fine dining scene.
After delving into the country's glorious ancient history and horrific recent past, boost your energy and spirits with a satisfying treat.
There are enough options to pack a three- to four-day trip with deliciousness ranging from South American tapas to deep-fried tarantulas. A foodie trip to Cambodia is definitely an option to bear in mind with the number of long weekends to come this year and next.
For our group of five, we were able to have very good meals for about US$20 (S$25) a head. The most expensive meal was at La Residence, which came to under US$50 a head. While the local currency is Cambodian riel, US dollars are accepted everywhere and is the currency that prices are quoted in.
The list here is by no means exhaustive and one regret I have is missing out on the restaurant Common Tiger. It was closed on a Monday evening when we tried to get a booking.
The New York Times says its South African chef, Timothy Bruyns, "artfully reimagines Cambodian flavours with his molecular gastronomy-inspired fare like a peanut-lime crusted sea bass with jasmine rice discs".
It will just have to wait till the next trip.
Friends the restaurant
215 Street 13, tel: +855-12-802-072 Website: www.tree-alliance.org/our-restaurants/friends.asp
74 Street 174, tel: +855-92-219-565 Website: www.tree-alliance.org/our-restaurants/romdeng.asp
Eat a meal and support a good cause at Friends The Restaurant and Romdeng.
They are sister eateries which provide street kids and marginalised youth and adults with a means of living as cooks and wait staff.
Friends offers an extensive menu of dishes for sharing and we pick the ones that catch our eye, from stir-fried red tree ants with beef fillet and holy basil (US$7.50) to Burmese chicken curry on crispy noodles with smoked chillies and pickled mustard greens (US$5.75).
We also asked if we could order tarantulas, a local delicacy, even though they have it on the menu only at Romdeng. They happily obliged as it was located nearby and we got to satisfy our curiosity.
The critters turned out to be smaller than expected since every photo of the dish is in extreme close-up. Turns out that deep-fried arachnids taste pretty similar to soft shell crab. And no, you do not feel the hairy legs scuttling down your throat.
What packed a little more bite was the coconut and chilli ice cream with the wonderfully smoky charred pineapple (US$4.25).
The food was decent enough that we made a separate visit to Romdeng, which is about a 10-minute walk away from Friends. Its fortuitous appearance just when we needed to take a break from the searing heat helped as well.
I rounded off a lunch of mango salad, stuffed squid and amok with a refreshing lime black pepper sorbet. But the daiquiri version was, as my friend declared, "awesome".
The 240½ Alleyway (off Street 240), tel: 855-17-770-754 Website: Search for Public House Phnom Penh in Facebook
The 240½ Alleyway (off Street 240), tel: 855-77-960-413 Website: Search for Bar.sito in Facebook
It feels like a Harry Potter adventure when we set off in search of alleyway 240½.
And it took some convincing from the tuk-tuk driver that we had come to the right place since neither the restaurant nor the bar are exactly visible from the main road. They are tucked in an alley in a poshly quiet area.
You can order food from Public House and have it at the bar, but we decide to sit down at a proper table in a well-lit space instead.
Unfortunately, the ventilation was terrible at Public House and the wait staff messed up the doneness for two steaks. At least, they were nice enough to redo the order to exactly how we wanted it. The menu is mostly Western and includes pub favourites such as burgers and fish and chips.
The cooling darkness of Bar.Sito was a respite after the stuffiness of House but one is soon reminded that smoking indoors is allowed here. Cocktails are US$5 each and happy hours are from 5 to 7pm.
Tepui At Chinese House
Chinese House, 45 Sisowath Quay, tel: +855-23-991-514 Website: www.tepui.asia
The head chef, Gisela Salazar Golding, is from Venezuela and the food on offer here is South American tapas with Japanese accents. From the empanadas filled with beef picadillo and goat cream cheese to the prettily seared scallops to the Sake Rojito cocktail, there was a nice balance of flavours that suggested that someone had put a lot of thought into the dishes. Located in a house built by a Chinese trader in 1903, and restored in 2009, it now hosts a restaurant, lounge bar and gallery for your lounging and art-browsing needs in one convenient space.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal, 92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, Sangkat Wat Phnom, tel: +855-23-981-888 Website: www.raffles.com/ phnom-penh/ dining/elephant-bar
No less a luminary than the late glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy has graced the bar - and the bar has the glass with her lipstick mark still on it to prove it. It also has a signature champagne cocktail to commemorate her 1967 visit, mischievously named Femme Fatale.
Happy hours from 4 to 9pm gets you a 50 per cent discount (cocktails are normally about US$10 each), so relax in a comfy rattan chair in the classily cosy surroundings. And pick a tipple which tickles your fancy from the Bou Sraa Waterfall to the Paris Sling ("like Singapore Sling, but stronger" said our server). The drinks are strong so take care not to guzzle like an elephant.
22-24 Street 214, tel: +855-23-224-582 Website: www.la-residence-restaurant. com
Dine like royalty in the former residence of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The kitchen is helmed by Swiss-trained Japanese chef Takeshi Kamo.
The menu is classically French with some Japanese accents, from the wagyu beef options to a soft shell crab starter. I went for the beef carpaccio (right) with local green pepper from Kampot, grilled skate fish and had chocolate eclair for dessert. The meal was pleasant enough without being particularly exciting.
For those on a tight budget, go for the US$15 three-course set lunch.
Foreign Correspondents' Club
363 Sisowath Quay, tel: +855-23-724-014 Website: fcccambodia.com
Is this it? We wondered because there was only a sign and stairs leading up a somewhat shabby-looking building.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club does not actually have much of a streetfront space, but no matter, you don't come here for the street view.
Instead, drop by in the evening for a sundowner as the Tonle Sap river, which the rooftop bar overlooks, gets bathed in rosy light. And the good news is that one-for-one happy hour deals are available from 5 to 7pm. Cocktails normally cost US$4.95 ($6.10) a glass.
The FCC Transfusion, a concoction of vodka, limes, cranberry juice and ginger ale, is perfect for quenching thirst and beating the heat.
They serve food here as well, a mix of Asian and Western fare, but we did not make it past the liquids section.
136 Street 41 Norodom Boulevard, tel: +855-707-944-2380 Website: www.malis-restaurant.com
Centred on a restful courtyard, Malis was opened in 2004 as one of the first upscale Cambodian restaurants in the country.
We had an unforgettable lunch here as every dish was refined and full of freshness and flavour from the bamboo shoots and smoked fish soup (US$7.50) to the pork and banana blossoms salad (US$6.50).
The traditional Khmer dish amok (US$7), or steamed curried fish, was the best we had, both delicate and robust at the same time.
Even better was the baked goby (US$15). It looked disconcertingly reptilian head-on but that was no deterrent to hungry diners who picked it clean. The fish was so fresh that the lemongrass, garlic and salt crust it was baked with was enough to bring out its flavour.
This article was first published on June 17, 2014.
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