Writer Joanna Mayhew sinks her teeth into Middle Eastern fare at Phnom Penh’s first restaurant offering traditional Persian cuisine, Kaviar. Photography by Anna Clare Spelman.

To speak with Kaviar restaurant’s head chef is to be enveloped in the mystique and glory of Iran. “The Iranian kababs are the most famous in the world,” says Hamad Shahmorady, who hails from Tehran.

The chef exudes enthusiasm for everything Persian, with a contagious passion that makes it a shame he’s tucked away creating magic and not excitedly guiding guests through each dish. “Saffron is very famous in my country,” he adds. “It’s the best saffron in the world.” Shahmorady says Iran also boasts the best ash reshteh, a lentil and noodle soup, amongst a host of other bests listed with ease.

The pride would be excessive if it were not substantiated by his impressive plates, on which meats take centre stage. The degustation menu for two ($50) features succulent chicken, 12-hour marinated shandiz lamb chops, and strips of ground lamb kubideh—all charcoal grilled and delicately flavoured with fresh herbs and Middle Eastern spices, starring saffron.

While Kaviar resembles fine dining, the owners, from Cambodia, France, Hong Kong and Iran, aim to keep prices reasonable to expose people to Iran’s culinary distinctions.

“We want the restaurant to be like a jewel, to be apart from others,” says co-owner Gwenael Rognant. This distinction has meant creative sourcing, with meats imported from Australia and spices, seeds, pomegranate paste and rosebuds carted from Iran and Turkey.

Though meats garner the most attention, the gems are in the details, such as those that bookend the degustation spread. Starters include delicate dollops of shirazi salad and eggplant with homemade garlic, cucumber and spinach yogurt dips, and the accompanying jalapeno and sweet potato breads are from the in-house bakery. Mini dessert offerings of macarons and opera cakes are outdone by the baghlava—perfectly moist after soaking in orange flower syrup, with crunch from the still-crisp puff pastry layers and pistachio crumbles.

Kaviar’s rich food is matched by the venue’s rich history. A restored Vann Molyvann building, the space once served as a residence for King Suramarit and Prince Norodom Sirivudh. Renovations have thoughtfully incorporated the compound’s original iron fence into tabletops and used original wood for Persian-motif frames.

A far cry from dark, carpeted spaces normally associated with Iran, the light restaurant is decorated with turquoise and floral upholstered chairs, as well as Persian antiques and a guestbook filled with scribbles.

Though the kitchen is halal, Kaviar makes a welcome exception for signature cocktails, such as the pomegranate margarita. The restaurant also features belly dancing and business lunches ($15), over which to enjoy traditional fare.

But don’t expect Shahmorady to provide guidance on the menu. Asked which dish is his favourite, his response is delightfully exactly as expected, “Everything”.

22 Street 55, Phnom Penh.
Tel: 017 390 066.
Open daily from 11 am until late.