Thai cuisine strikes a delicate balance between spice, salt, sweet and sour. Daniel Riegler visits The Basil in Phnom Penh to see if it gets the combination right.
As the not so old adage goes, if you want good Thai food in Phnom Penh, catch the next bus to Bangkok; still one wonders where the locally based Thai diplomats and businessmen go for their fix. The answer is The Basil, the restaurant attached to the Thai owned Regent Park Hotel on Sothearos.
In a sensible move, the restaurant is located inside the hotel grounds. There is no need to walk through the lobby to enter, although a lack of markings might result in your doing so anyway.
Upon finding a way into the medium size dining room, the first thing that stands out are stark white walls offset by dark wood fixtures. It’s inviting without being too warm, clean without being too sterile. An emphasis on striking the right balance seems to extend from the Thai kitchen to the décor. There is no overt sense that you are dining in a hotel until the drink menu arrives, skip overpriced wine and stick with $2 Singha.
We are attended by no less than three different waiters throughout our meal but they work together in relative harmony. None of them, however, deigns to mention as they pour glasses of water and hand out modest plates of rice that these will show up as charges of $3 and $2 respectively, effectively a 25 percent surcharge on our bill.
Fried egg noodle sheet stuffed with minced pork ($4) are crispy with a noticeable lack of grease but a delicate tamarind dipping sauce doesn’t do enough to stand up against the fried wanton flavor. Catfish stir fried with chili paste ($6) brings the flavour balance concept to the forefront. Hints of fish sauce permeate, but the stronger flavors come from the addition of cherry eggplants and fresh green pepper, still on the vine.
Crispy pork belly with kale ($5) highlights the Thai ability of individual flavours to stand out. Each bite starts with soy sauce and finishes with garlic. Kale adds crunch and the pork is just fatty and chewy enough, nothing complex, just harmonious goodness.
The most ambiguous dish we order, spicy eggplant salad ($4.50) arrives last, it is a bewildering pile of eggplant, ground pork, diced shrimp and what appears to be fish floss, all garnished with chili, onions and quartered hardboiled eggs. The bottom half, smoky eggplant studded with chili is pleasant enough on its own but the citrusy seafood topping confuses the palate; lose the balance and you end up with a mess.
If Thai food is what you crave, The Basil will deliver. Setting and pricewise it caters to the business crowd but don’t let that stop you, just be aware that you are in a hotel and you will pay a premium.