Cambodian cuisine is delicious, interesting, and varied, but there are few sit-down restaurants in Phnom Penh that do Khmer food justice. Restaurants with a pleasant ambiance also tend to be tourist-oriented, and are likely to serve an incoherent array of over-sweetened curries and Thai food masquerading as Cambodian. Tastier and more authentic places often don’t invite long, lingering lunches—usually you’re sweating too much to want to stay past the last slurp of soup, anyway.
Enter La’Baab. The newish restaurant isn’t immediately obvious. Located above Pharmacie de la Gare near Vattanac Tower, after climbing a few flights of stairs, guests find themselves in a wooden interior evocative of mid-1800s Battambang. At least, that’s what the Phnom Penh Post reported, and we’re willing to take them at their word. The menu, however, seems more influenced by the food of the Lower Mekong, where Cambodia’s east meets Vietnam’s south: lots of fish soups and curries, crunchy vegetables, and tart and fermented flavors.
We will overlook this minor ontological confusion given La’Baab’s many gustatorial pleasures—and the fact that it’s simply a damn fine place to sit and sip a lemongrass-infused limeade. And as often happens, limeade leads to lunch, and we ordered a selection of dishes off a menu that was varied enough to content a timid newcomer or an old Cambodia hand.
Since we like to flatter ourselves that we fit into the latter category, we eschewed the spring rolls and chose a selection of more obscure dishes: a subtle but tasty hemp and crab paste soup, and a spread of fresh vegetables surrounding a pot of the the warm, pungent fermented fish known as maam, for starters. Two vegetable dishes, wing beans and lotus root, were both prepared in exemplary fashion, still crunchy and sweet but warm and fragrant with aromatics.
Although less adventurous, the amok was an outstanding example of a dish that is exceedingly popular but too often uninspired. La’Baab’s fish amok was perfectly balanced, the curry’s palm sugar sweetness offset by the slight bitterness of the noni leaves, a defining ingredient that is regularly omitted in the Kingdom’s more tourist-oriented restaurants. Another standout was the mam, a dish more popular in Cambodian homes than restaurants. Milder than prahok, here braised mam was served with fatty pork belly, adding an extra rich layer to the sweet, fermented fish.
One in our party was a chef who, having worked at high-end restaurants before moving to Cambodia, exists in a state of perpetual horror at how restaurant food is presented here. Finally, at La’Baab, he was able to eat a meal without complaint. Like the restaurant itself, the dishes have the right balance of stylish without crossing into pretentiousness, even in the case of the mini-Scotch eggs, made from hard-boiled quail’s eggs wrapped in prahet and coated in green-tinted puffed ambok.
All of us were in agreement that we would be eager to return to La’Baab and dive deeper into the menu, as well as checking out the breakfast specials, which include Vietnamese specialties like com tam and cha trung thit. Or just heading back to relax with a coffee and drink in the restaurant’s fabulous wooden interior, beneath bobbing clusters of traditional fish-traps, gazing out at the futuristic Vattanac Tower—the perfect mix of old and new.
Dishes priced between $4 and $8.
Open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
81 E2 Preah Monivong Blvd (above Pharmacie de la Gare), Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
T: 012 955 661
This post was a tag-team effort by Julia Wallace and Lina Goldberg.