Sure, there are sushi rolls, but Japanese seafood restaurant Sakana Lab offers much more. Matt Surrusco and photographer Lim Sokchanlina grab a booth and sample an assorted catch of fresh seafood from sashimi to sake-steamed clams.
While classic Japanese seafood is its focus, Sakana Lab is also an experiment in offering quality fish dishes at a reasonable price, says owner Yugo Ota.
To do that, Ota receives fish directly from Sihanoukville fishers every two days and Tokyo suppliers three times a week.
Sakana, which means fish in Japanese, is not just a business, adds the owner, who hails from Sapporo, Japan.
Ota has opened a total of eight restaurants in Phnom Penh since he moved to Cambodia about five years ago. He’s since sold six, now running Sakana, which opened in October, and its nearby, more upscale sister, Sushi Lab, which has been open for about 14 months.
The newer eatery, an old Khmer house in the capital’s BKK 1 district, was renovated to resemble an old Japanese country house, Ota says. With comfortable seating for 62 people across two floors, including couches on the balcony and cosy leather booths downstairs, Sakana is great for dates and even better for groups.
With plates to share among two ($12) or four people ($23), a sashimi entree offers a rotating assortment of raw fish, which tastes as good as it looks, silky and smooth.
On a Friday in December, the entree for two included two pieces of tuna, salmon, amberjack, grouper, soi fish and vinegar-marinated mackerel, two prawns and one oyster, the latter generously doused in Ponzu sauce and olive oil.
To start with a spicy kick, the cold tofu with fish tartare ($3.50) is composed of four cubes of tofu topped with a spread of white fish, shallot, Chinese chili sauce and soy sauce. The tofu was light and the tartare, full of salty, spicy flavour.
The menu offers a half-dozen typical sushi rolls, but if you can’t decide which to order, ask for the Sakana Lab roll ($8), which includes the works: salmon, tuna, eel, crab meat, avocado, cucumber, flying fish egg, pickled radish and sprouts. It’s a challenge to fit in your mouth, but the varied tastes make it worth the struggle.
With plenty to share among two or three people, depending on how much you love shellfish, the pot of sake-steamed clams ($6) is filled with Sihanoukville-sourced molluscs drowned in Japanese sake, fish stock and soy sauce – the alcohol boils off, Ota assures.
The mixed shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6) consists of two fist-sized nests of deep-fried stringy vegetables and Cambodian river shrimp, served with a bowl of tempura sauce and grated radish, green tea salt and curry salt for adding to taste.
The strings of leek, pumpkin, onion, carrot and asparagus are disguised by the fried tempura coating, but still offer a bit of diversity in flavour.
So, for those seeking a new Japanese joint in Phnom Penh, who are looking for something more than sushi, test out Sakana Lab.
You’re sure to see the food is fresh, filling and quite fantastic.