Writer Ellie Dyer and photographer Dylan Maddux talk fine dining with the team behind Van’s restaurant in Phnom Penh.
The dining room at Van’s is a study in colonial glamour. Housed in the 150-year-old former Indochina Bank building on Post Office Square, the high ceilings, tiled floors and stained-glass windows create a sense of elegant sophistication.
Formerly the residence of the Van family — who lived in the building in the 1960s and now manage the eatery — the venue’s interior is matched by the high-end French fare served in its recently refurbished dining room, where spotlights and grey drapes give its old-school surrounds a modern lift.
“It is gastronomic food,” explains Van’s talented chef Nicolas Malherbe, who hails from Perpignan in southern France. The cook worked in Siem Reap and the Caribbean before moving to Phnom Penh three and a half years ago, where he savours his “freedom in the kitchen.”
Creativity is evident in the à la carte menu, which is rich and unashamedly indulgent, and comes with prices to match. Gooey pan-fried duck foie gras ($21) rests on a bed of homemade gingerbread, complemented by a sweet raspberry sauce in a decadent, coronary-inducing starter.
Salty Japanese scallops are served with a shot glass of sunshine-yellow saffron sauce, with a delicate block of yellow and squid-ink tinged rice ($24) on the side. Shoots of asparagus and three juicy sun-blushed tomatoes cut through the rich flavours.
Simpler fare is offered on its barbeque menu, launched earlier this year, where diners can choose from choice cuts of meat displayed in a cold cabinet on the lower floor. The menu highlights the quality of the produce, including marbled Australian wagyu beef and a Black Angus beef burger containing Emmental cheese and smoked bacon.
The tender 250g US prime cut ($40) is served thin on a wide piece of slate, and is so huge it could easily serve two. Though not as indulgent as some of Van’s offerings, it still comes with four sauces — mushroom, mustard, pepper and an unexpected vibrant curry sauce.
Van’s also offers a well-priced business lunch menu at $15 per head for two courses. A drink, along with coffee or tea, is included and it has been expanded to offer four options for each course. “Now we give more choice to the customer,” says Malherbe.