Writer Joanna Mayhew and photographer Conor Wall discover some early seasonal cheer at Bistro Lorenzo.

Christmas has already arrived inside Filipino restaurant Bistro Lorenzo. Reflecting the predominantly Christian population of the Philippines, which boasts the longest festive season in the world, the restaurant was replete with pine tinsel, wreaths, shiny ornaments and a fully adorned tree in early October.

The atmosphere was festive — managing to be at once random and charming. Exposed brick wall, dark wood floors and high ceilings saved the space from feeling cluttered. Fake tulips rested on smartly set wooden tables, old Filipino tourism and film posters filled the walls, bright scarves decorated high-backed chairs, and unexplained miscellaneous trophies were subtly displayed in a corner.

The hodgepodge of decorations is fitting given the diversity of Filipino cuisine, which has over the years been influenced by Spanish, Chinese, Malay and American cultures. With an extensive menu ranging from salads and pastas to seafood platters and curries, Bistro Lorenzo has offered a taste of this distinctive food since 2006. Given the limited establishments offering Filipino dishes in Phnom Penh, we opted for the restaurant’s specialities.

We started with the dynamite chillies ($3.85) — red chillies stuffed with cheese and then deep-fried that recalled Mexico’s chile rellenos. Five large chillies were served with sweet chilli sauce, exemplifying the collision of Asian and Latino flavours. Though lacking in crispiness, the appetizers gave a spicy kick-start to the meal.

The standout dish, in terms of both colour and flavour, was beef calderata ($7.15). Tender pieces of beef were combined in a slightly spicy tomato-based sauce with thickly cut red chillies, potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, onions and olives. Topped with melted cheese, it made for a hearty and rich dish, reminiscent of a soothing wintertime beef stew. The presentation was simple and not overly ornate — fitting for the home-style cooking.

Chicken and pork adobo ($4.40) came a close second. The traditional dish consisted of braised meats in garlic, vinegar, black pepper and soy sauce with an additional splash of pineapple juice. Served in its own gravy and falling off the bone, the chicken made for another warming comfort dish. The only thing that seemed to be missing was snow outside.

The pork binagoongan ($4.40) harked back to the Chinese side of Filipino food.  Pork belly was cooked with bean and shrimp paste, along with eggplant, onion and tofu. Despite the dish being listed under the “vegetarian” menu, the pork was the most prominent feature of the dish and a welcome relief from overly soft and fishy tofu.

The dessert offerings include traditional specialties such as halayang ube (purple yam) and halo-halo. But the crème de la crème of our experience was the leche flan ($1.75). The caramel custard was refreshingly cool, and denser and richer than its crème caramel cousin. It was so good, in fact, that I ordered two. After all, it felt like Christmas.

Bistro Lorenzo
12 Street 306, Phnom Penh.
Tel: 092 867 901.