There is a book called The Art Of Simple French Cookery by Alexander Watt, a notorious gourmet who spent much of his life lounging around in Gallic restaurants, which perfectly captures the essence of the Parisian bistro in the 1950s.
No doubt beginning his day with pastis, moving on to red wine, and then finishing the night on brandy, Watt would gorge himself on bistro classics such as poularde Marie-Louise, boeuf en gelee, rognons a la moutarde, gibelotte de lapin, and always a plate of seasonal cheeses.
The accounts of his “gastronomic peregrinations” are a joy to read, as is his book, Paris Bistro Cookery, which adjoins the back of The Art Of Simple French Cookery like an upside down Siamese twin. As you flick through the pages, you can picture Watt swaying in the doorway of tiny Parisian kitchens, disrupting service as he scrawls into a grease-spattered notebook.
And something tells me he would have approved of La P’tite France, 6,200 miles away in Phnom Penh, and the cooking of its chef-owner Didier. I wasn’t lucky enough to go to his original, much smaller venue, just off the Riverside. But foodies fondly recall it as a typical bistro – friendly, cramped, tables pushed together, noise and tobacco smoke drifting over the cheeseboards. They recall with gluttonous, lip-smacking memories, the splendid simplicity of the dishes – always a severer test of a kitchen’s ability than the fancy stuff.
La P’tite France has since moved to a beautiful villa on Street 306, and people who know tell me the food is even better. But everything comes at a cost – in this case a less chirpy, more formal ambience, they say. So it was with these thoughts and the longing for Gallic classics like confit duck, terrines, and oysters flown in from France, as our tuk tuk arrived at the plush gates and garish pink sign of Didier’s new home.
For 8pm on a Saturday night, business was steady rather than busy, and we chose a table on the patio giving a glimpse of the Khmer chefs in their whites beavering away in the kitchen. Around us sat pudgy, well-dressed French men doing what they do best – discussing food while gorging themselves like foie gras geese to a chorus of ooh la las.
There were specials on the blackboard – including tripe and scallops – but sadly they’d sold out of oysters, which our waiter said arrive every Friday.
The service was smooth and brisk, and a little plate of amuse bouche quickly arrived – two slices of baguette topped with tomato, olive, and melted cheese that were a little ordinary, and certainly not needed considering the enormous portions that followed.
My $5.25 starter of marrow bone gratin with toast and a saucer of fleur de sel was exquisite. The gooey, oozing, fatty, beef shin marrow melted in your mouth and was a reminder – at half the price and far more generous – of the similar signature dish at St John restaurant in London, which food writer Anthony Bourdain claims is the best dish he’s eaten.
My friend’s starter of whelks with garlic mayonnaise ($6.25) was very good too – no trace of grit, and a wonderful, fresh, fossily taste of the sea. But if I were to be properly critical, the garlic should have been chopped much finer, and the aioli was lacking in the richness it should deliver in its perfect form.
Mon Dieu this man knows his onions though. And that view was confirmed by the main courses. Each part was a model of how it should be cooked, with such assurance, such taste, and such old-fashioned virtue.
My $11.50 braised pork shank with cep confit, sitting on a bed of choucroute, and winged by two turned potatoes, was enormous and fell apart as I dug in. It was an exceptional dish and showcased every part of Didier’s cooking skills.
My friend kept uttering appreciative noises as he ate his $12.50 braised lamb shank nestled on creamy flageolet beans, steeped in garlic. It came with a ramekin of fiery Tunisian harissa paste that brought the whole dish alive.
Our bellies bursting, and with the true taste of France dancing on our taste buds, we looked at the dessert menu, boasting dark chocolate mousse, poached pears, tarte tatin et al. But as any French cook will tell you, every good Gallic meal should end with cheese, so we shared a platter ($6.50) that came with a roof-of-the-mouth-etching Roquefort that would have made King Charles VI proud, and certainly the finest French bread – baked daily by Didier and his crew – I can remember having in Asia.
By golly it was an incredible meal. The cooking was sublime, and the only downside was the eagerness of the well-drilled, immaculately-turned-out Khmer waiters to snatch our plates at every opportunity. It’s certainly not a place for night owls or loiterers. By 10pm we were the last table to clear, and felt slightly hurried to vacate that beautiful, rare spot of leafy sanctuary in the steamy streets of Phnom Penh.
The frogmarching, if you will, aside, I’d heartily recommend it to food lovers, and anyone wanting a romantic notion of what it must have been like before French colonialists were finally booted out of Cambodia. A pocket of history, a pocket of gastronomic excellence. It may not have the informal, neighbourhood dive ambience of a true bistro, but I know Watt would have greeted the cooking with appreciate applause.
La P’tite France, #38, Street 306, Phnom Penh, 016 64 26 30. Meal for two, including drinks and service: $65