If you're in Phnom Penh, you'll probably want to enjoy as much of the marvelous local cuisine as you can. But on the odd night that you desire something different, the best foreign food on offer is (no prizes for guessing) French.
Though Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, Phnom Penh had something of a French character until the late 1960s. Croissants and café au lait were morning staples in cafés where educated Cambodians conversed as comfortably in French as they did in Khmer and perused the city's French-language newspapers.
All of this vanished during the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. But thankfully the past decade has been peaceful. Political stability and a growing expat population have allowed Phnom Penh to rediscover its dormant taste for French haute cuisine. Topaz, tel: (855-23) 221 622, for long the city's best-known French restaurant, has moved to sparkling new premises. Others, like the Wine Restaurant, tel: (855-23) 223 527, and Bougainvillier, tel: (855-23) 220 528, have opened in response to resurgent demand. But the grandest new dining spots by far are La Residence, tel: (855-23) 224 582, and Van's Restaurant, tel: (855-23) 722 067.
Located in what was previously the elegant townhouse of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, La Residence is a stylish venue, with seating arranged to maximize views of a fine tropical garden. It's owner, Ansiau La Planeta, is a former French army officer. Swiss-trained Japanese chef Takeshi Kamo helms the kitchen and his Gallic-influenced fare includes such dishes as foie-gras ravioli and rack of lamb in herb-and-mustard sauce.
Next to the main post office, in what remains of Phnom Penh's French quarter, stands an early 20th century building that is home to Van's. With its paneling, Art Deco floor tiles and vintage gramophone it has something of the air of a grand, colonial home and in fact was the family residence of present owner Van Porleng in the 1960s before it was seized by the state. Porleng, who studied hospitality in France and spent 10 years running a hotel in Paris, negotiated the building's return in 2003. "It has its past, its history," she says. "We hope that by creating Van's, and people enjoying coming here, we are contributing to the preservation of that part of our history."
by Kevin Doyle