More than a social enterprise, Friends the Restaurant offers a diverse menu built for sharing and a casual, foliage-filled atmosphere. Matt Surrusco and photographer Lim Sokchanlina split a flavourful feast starter to finish.

With an eclectic menu featuring plenty of dishes great for sharing and spacious al fresco seating, Phnom Penh’s Friends the Restaurant is much more than “a training restaurant for marginalised youth,” as the sign to the front describes it.

The social enterprise of NGO Mith Samlanh is a great place to dine on delicious food with pals, while supporting the culinary education of hard-working chefs and servers in training.

Former culinary student, Meas Saroeun, took up the role of head chef in October and updated the restaurant’s menu as of Dec. 1 with the help of her predecessor.

“It’s my dream,” the 27-year-old says of becoming the restaurant’s top chef after training and working for about eight years in Mith Samlanh’s cooking programmes and restaurants.

The schooling has paid off. Friends’ tasty dishes, prepared by students and their teachers – who are all managed by Saroeun – are memorable, like a film you think about days after leaving the cinema.

To start, the sun-dried tomato hummus with crispy wontons ($4.75) is a great plate to share, with six deep-fried wonton crisps topped with a dollop of thick, garlicky hummus, half a cherry tomato and basil. The usual ingredients are there: chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper. But the sun-dried tomato and lime juice give the creamy hummus a more unique flavour than your run-of-the-mill dip.

Next up, the panzanella entree ($6.50) is a robust, refreshing tomato and cucumber salad with basil, feta cheese and pieces of Tuscan bread, brilliant for soaking up the tangy red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing. Each bite has a slightly different texture and flavour.

A house speciality, the seafood laksa ($6.25) is a Malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup, swimming with tender chunks of prawn, sea bass and squid. Despite the slices of chili and side of chili sambal sauce to add, the dish could have used a spicier kick.

Still, the more emphasised coconut cream flavour, which likely dulled the heat, was a pleasant alternative.

If you have a sweet tooth and love passion fruit, order the meringue passion fruit tartlet ($4.50), another new menu item, for dessert. Served with four slices of mango and a drizzle of syrupy passion fruit sauce, the combination of the passion fruit filling and lemon meringue is a sugary, fruity delight. Sharing may be a struggle.

If you’re still craving passion fruit, the strawberry, passion fruit and mango smoothie ($4.75), also a new addition to the menu, is less sweet but equally satisfying, fruity and refreshing. The balance of the three fruits is near-perfect. You can taste hints of each with every ice-cold slurp.

With seating split between two colourful indoor rooms and front and rear patios surrounded by green palms and a fence of bamboo in the back, Friends is an inviting place to eat.

215 Street 13, Phnom Penh.
Tel. 012 802 072.
Open daily, from 11am to 11pm. Kitchen closes at 10pm.