As I climbed the stairs I expected to find hellfire and damnation on the balcony, not the usual sort of NGO workshop induced purgatory that I find myself in on an almost daily basis, but actual, Dante’s ninth circle of hell style torment; a three headed devil partially buried in sheets of ice, with Judas Iscariot, il tradire proditor, in his mouth.
You see, the reason for this is that I swore an oath to the pagan gods of the Playboy ancestors when I started doing this sporadic and occasional restaurant review – no FCC, no Topaz, no Rosie’s wine bar and defiantly no Cafe Java. Even as I type this now, I can feel the storm clouds gathering; Perun has paused in his feeding of Simargl while he listens for the sound of soul being claimed in his name, my only hope is that Iarilo, my personal deity of choice, can manage to put in a good word or two in before the thunderbolts come crashing down.
But alas, a very good friend of mine way having a final, farewell forever to Cambodia luncheon and I could not in all honesty not go (plus she still owed me US$100 for a bet on a certain NGO project that was never, ever, going to get funded and I had told her so from the beginning)
So, that being that, I closed my eyes, muttered an apologetic incantation to the ancient Playboy deities and headed up the stairs to Cafe Java…..
As I reached the balcony, I almost turned right around, the concentrated stench of uber-liberal NGO bullshit rolling out at me made me think that the pagan gods’ thunderbolt that was about to strike would actually be a blessing.
While sat there waiting for my friends and colleagues to turn up, I experienced what I thought was a sense of deja vu, until I realised it was just a memory of a fearful 8 year old Sir Playboy sat in the dentists waiting room, while screams came from the oral abattoir next door.
The inner area of the restaurant is an air-conditioned, smoke free environment, however, smoking is allowed on the breezy, ceiling fan cooled, balcony tables, although when I lit up out there, a rotund, pink nosed, woman of a certain age, lifted her snout up from her pancakes long enough to ‘tut tut’ quite loudly in my direction. No smoking inside, smoking allowed outside; hardly rocket science madam?
Ignoring the haranguing old Health Nazi, I smoked my Ara Red down to the filter and then wandered through to the inner sanctum to relieve myself, en route I paused to view the current display by Simon Toffanello, a well enough known fellow on the 440 e-zine free beer circuit, who currently has a photographic display on at Cafe Java. As always, I found his perspective, and eye for the ordinary, a refreshing relief from the hackneyed snaps one usually sees of; the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, Angkor Wat, the Bayon Heads, blah, blah, et cetera, blah.
They were far more refreshing than the watery weak tasteless iced coffee that I had ordered (15 minutes earlier) at some five times the price of a far superior beverage at my local Khmer pavement breakfast cafe.
Having had half an hour on my own here earlier, while waiting for my friends to finish their final, panicked, last minute shopping spree and arrive, I had the chance to eavesdrop on some of our fellow diners. I have always felt that at least half of the ambiance of any restaurant or bar is created by whoever else is in there at the time. Unfortunately a lot of the leftover breakfast/early luncheon crowd were exactly who you would expect to be eating in Cafe Java.
There was a trio of loud American guys (tautology I know) who I gleaned were here in Cambodia for a month to write a report for some American religious group funding something or another in Cambodia, their main conversation seemed to revolve around where they could get some cheap suits tailor-made while they were here; although I am not quite sure why, the suits that they had on looked cheap enough to me. The bespoke garment conversation did pause though, however slightly, when their sandwiches arrive to allow them to mutter a swift prayer of ‘for what we are about to receive’.
To the other side of me several minuscule blond haired things (oh yes, that is it, children) ran amok squealing; while their disinterested mothers chatted about the price of silk and how difficult it is to find a good cleaner in Phnom Penh. After an eternity of cantering and squawking (or perhaps just ten minutes, that seemed to me, to be like time without end) one of the mothers took a break from her aloof silk diatribe to project, in saccharine tones, ”Tarquin, come here and eat your tomatoes,” a shudder and a fresh sense of deja vu washed over me as I recalled some of the worse parts of my former life in Kensington.
Finally my fellow diners turned up and we perused the menu, ah, so many items on it that just do not seem to feature in my normal day to day life in Cambodia.
Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese Bagel (US$3)
A Smoked Ham Sandwich; of which the menu proudly proclaims that the ham is from Dan Meats (US$4).
Chicken, Beef or Vegetarian Fajitas with salad (US$4) – now while I may not have much time for those epicure deviants, ‘vegetarians’, I do think that it is being overly cruel to make them into fajitas.
The lady of the hour ordered the Pesto Chicken, Pasta Spirals Salad; with sun dried tomatoes, capers and olives (US$4). I believe that they meant rotini, but spiral is obviously easier to spell. This looked very pretty when it turned up, and was pronounced very tasty. Although I was glad that I had not ordered it as it seemed to be only a side salad sized portion rather than the main course promised by the menu and price tag.
Charlie Boy sat next to me, a fellow gourmand and trencherman of John Bull magnitude, surprised me by opting for the Red Snapper and Mushrooms with salad (US$4.50), which I have to admit was an excellent choice – even if I do have my doubts as to the true species of fish in the dish. The pan-fried fish fillet was cooked perfectly, along with an abundance of those small Khmer, button-style, mushrooms. If I was feeling pernickety, I could point out that three slices of tomato, three oval slices of cucumber and a limp sprig of lettuce is hardly an accompaniment, more of a glorified garnish really, but who wants to be pernickety?
For libations, the list was as long, as it was overpriced. Coconut smoothies at US$2.25, or maybe a US$3 vanilla milkshake, a friend of mine fancying a change from her usual US$2.25 hot chocolate was most adventurous and ordered a specialist coffee: the Vienna Melange, which contained; Irish cream, orange, espresso and whipped cream, to which she further added an extra shop of almond roca syrup (US$3) I declined a taste of it, for fear that just one mouthful would induce a diabetic coma.
Those of us on volunteer allowances however went for the cheaper option of Beer Lao, at the extortionately exaggerated price of US$1.50 a full 50% more expensive than the average price about town.
After a mere 20 minutes of waiting, two of the five meals that we had ordered arrived, having skipped breakfast I was glad that my Bacon Cheese Burger with fries (US$4.50) had turned up. I have to say, it was probably the best burger that I have had here in Cambodia, although there is not much competition for that particular honour. The downside was that there were so few fries accompanying it, the bible bashers at the next table could easily have baptised each of them individually just using the names of the books in the Old Testament.
On the whole the quality of the food was actually very good, even if the portions were on the small side and the prices on the large side. This single course lunch, with a few drinks, for the five of us costing US$48.50 nearly US$10 each.
Unfortunately we had to pass on having any wine with the meal, Cafe Java only being able to offer us one wine, a medium dry, white French Vin de Pays at the ridiculous price of US$24 a bottle.
Arriving home for the afternoon, I worked on finalising some reports for work; as I did I realised that I was still hungry and while I perused export data and ‘official’ tariffs, I managed to nibble my way through half a tube of Salt and Vinegar Pringles and a pair of green mangos with salt and chilli dip.
Queries, comments, suggestions, hate mail and gastroenterological concerns, as usual, to: