As one of Phnom Penh’s newest eateries Aqua has a lot to live up to in the capital’s burgeoning gastronomic scene. Kate Burbidge and Dylan Walker find promising fusion cuisine with character, as chef-owner Sasha Hernaus delivers with aplomb.

The pool and garden at Aqua offer a sanctuary from one of the city’s busiest areas, and the atmosphere continues through to the light, airy restaurant space decorated with clean lines, neutral colours and simple, solid furniture.

Look closely, however, and in a surreal twist a single bird-of-paradise bloom resides in a birdcage. The mix of visuals signifies that at Aqua diners can expect a mélange of east, west and the unexpected.

With a modest lunch menu catering to almost any taste — á la carte options range from $4.50 to $13.50 and a set menu at $10.50 for three courses — chef Sacha Hernaus gives standard western dishes a new lease of life with oriental twists and artistic presentation.

The meal begins with complimentary warm home-baked bread and pesto made from European garden-grown basil, both of which are replenished if necessary. A tomato carpaccio, an interesting vegetarian spin on the usual beef or tuna version, makes for an entrée that is a riot of flavour and colour. Finely-sliced ripe tomato lines up alongside beetroot crisps, home-made pesto and sharp goats cheese. Garnished with beetroot and balsamic reduction, it’s a slice of Mediterranean heaven on a plate.

As a main course, a grouper fillet is pan-fried to perfection. Delicately crispy yet succulent, it is seasoned just enough to bring out the subtle flavour of the fish without overwhelming it. The accompanying cassoulet of haricots blancs is cooked risotto-style with oil, cream and parmesan. The beans take on a creamy richness that lends itself perfectly to their velvety texture. The dish is served with a vibrant yellow curry sauce in its own coconut-wood ramekin. The sauce can be slathered or drizzled according to taste. Its gentle warmth ties the two elements together without drowning either.

Though the set-menu portions are easily large enough to share, those with a more robust appetite might choose an extra main course. An unusual treatment of chicken fajitas ($7.50) finds them aromatic rather than spicy. Juicy chunks of chicken, green bell pepper and onion arrive sizzling at the table. A piquant— but not hot — rich red salsa, smooth guacamole and a silky sour cream help diners assemble a gentler version of the Tex-Mex mainstay.

While most fruit platters are much of a muchness, Hernaus again demonstrates his quirky style by offering a rich caramel sauce on his version. The caramel enlivens the bright mix of fresh tropical fruits, but popping candy provides that extra twist and proves a delightfully unexpected addition as it crackles on the tongue.

With bright flavours and a drinks menu that includes a not-too-sweet range of fresh juices (at $2.50), it is apparent that fresh, high quality ingredients are paramount at Aqua.

Aqua, 2 Street 278. Open 11.30am to 2.30pm and 6pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Mondays. Tel: 012 414 596.