Julie Thaï packed her bags from Paris for Phnom Penh for a two month adventure 10 years ago. Bridget Di Certo looks at how passion for her heritage — both French and Cambodian – encouraged her to open the doors to Cambodia’s first steakhouse. Photography by Chatti Phal.
In 2009, launching a two-storey steakhouse on the southern end of Monivong Boulevard was an ambitious venture. Not only was it the first steakhouse in Phnom Penh but its location was predominantly occupied by locals who, for the most part, were unfamiliar with the concept.
“The idea was to open an international standard steakhouse in Cambodia,” recalls Julie Thaï, the French-Cambodian owner and general director of T-Bone Steak House. “We came onto Monivong Boulevard as an idea to attract more Asian customers. For the French, Australians, Americans — they would easily find [it] because they were aware of the concept.”
The trick to making steak a standout, Thaï says, is keeping the meat in a cold room for up to three weeks to allow it to tenderise. During this period, it is cleaned several times and inedible parts cut out and discarded.
“When you purchase the meat at the markets, they kill the animal and sell the meat straight away, so that makes the meat very tough,” she explains.
Patrons are often surprised by the tenderness of Cambodian beef, says the career restaurateur, who after working in Paris eateries opened her first restaurant — Le Wok on Street 178 — in 2007.
“We have a very good quality in Cambodia. [There is] much less fat — I believe you have seen some cows here!” she says. “Most customers are surprised with the quality of the Cambodian beef. They think that Cambodian beef is very tough.”
As well as bringing out the best in local cuts, the menu regularly features imported Australian and New Zealand meats, with occasional highlights of United States beef. Steak is served according to the patrons’ choice of cut, dressing and sides. The most popular are baked potatoes and garlic mushrooms.
Prices vary depending on sides, the choice of cut and the origin of the meat, with Cambodian steak the cheapest on the menu. Cuts include rib-eye, tenderloin and, of course, the t-bone.
“I don’t know if this comes from the name of the restaurant, but it is a very American cut and by far our most popular,” Thaï says.
The restaurant’s name also demonstrates that, first and foremost, the venture is about offering fine steak. The idea was to create an atmosphere that concentrated on the plate of food rather than the decoration or finish of the restaurant.
Starting from the plate, however, faced its first challenge with the Asian tradition of meal sharing.
“In Cambodian cuisine and Asian cuisine it is difficult to make them understand that it was one plate per person. I am really a fan of Lok Lak, but eating the Lok Lak beef and eating a steak is a very different experience,” she laughs.
A uniquely Cambodian accompaniment requested at T-Bone Steak House is the lime and pepper sauce commonly served with Lok Lak, which Thaï says “can work”.
“In Cambodia a lot of the local ingredients here actually are wonderful for the steak,” she adds, pointing to Kampot pepper as a perfect accompaniment.