I thought things were going to turn quite ugly for a second, and had visions of my iPhone being thrown on the floor and crushed under a weighty boot.
I was sitting at a table at Le Bistrot de Paris, waiting for my friend to arrive, when the owner, a stocky, tattooed Frenchman, stormed over and said: “No photo!” as I took snaps of the menu.
He demanded to know what I was doing and I assured him I didn’t own a restaurant, and wasn’t there to nick his dishes. I explained that I was writing a series on French dining in Phnom Penh, and had taken pictures of the menu in case I was too pissed to remember them later – which turned out to be a good move given the absinthe.
I could tell he didn’t believe me, so I showed him my phone and the reviews of Chez Gaston and La P’tite France. He calmed down after that, and said he was worried three or four restaurants might appear near his tiny bistro on Street 51 with identical menus. I felt like holding up a copy of his sacred menu – boasting French classics like coq au vin – and asking him which of the dishes he’d invented himself. But wisely thought better of it.
The owner was soon back to his charming self, and poured me a shot of absinthe – which was excellent value at $1. I necked it as he returned with a spoon and sugar lump. “You do already!” he said. I didn’t want to upset him again, so I bought another one and let him unleash the green fairy, and pay homage to the memory of Toulouse Le Plot.
He was soon telling me of the years he’d spent in the French army while flicking through his menu, pointing to the cheapness of the drinks – just $1 a glass for the house wine. I asked about the specials, and he went off to his kitchen at the back of the bistro, sorry bistrot, and proudly returned with a vac-pack pouch of confit duck he’d poached in a sous vide water bath.
My friend arrived at that point, and we were soon remarking about what a strange place it was to have a French restaurant selling tripe and tete de veau hidden on a row of lady bars, next to a shady gambling den, as if to say, oh, find me if you must. Would we would take a date there, we pondered. Probably not. But we were clearly wrong, and the tables began to fill with Frenchmen in femme-batteurs and their escorts.
Raw and ready might be one way to describe the street-side ambience, but the place certainly had character. It was a real diamond in the rough, and if it hadn’t been so highly recommended by one Walloon foodie expert, we’d probably never have ventured there, which would have been a great shame as we’d have missed out on some splendid, rustic cooking. And the only one of the three Gallic meals we’d reviewed so far that had actually been cooked for us by a Frenchman.
We kicked off with a shared plate of foie gras ($7), which was tasty enough and had the usual coma-slipping texture, and came with toasted slices of white sandwich loaf – thankfully not the repulsive, sweetened variety you always get in Cambodia. After our mains arrived, the owner returned from the kitchen and caught us taking pictures. This time there was no hostility. He simply walked up to his friend at the next table and joked in French that we were Japanese.
My tournedos was wonderfully succulent, and full of well-aged, beefy flavour – unlike many eye fillets you get in Phnom Penh restaurants for triple the price. It was topped with a rich red wine sauce, thick with melted shallots, and with a deeply sensual taste. The potato gratin was studded with garlic slices and extremely good. I checked the price on the specials board behind us, and sneaked another photo. There was definitely no 1 in front of the 7. How you could sell such a generous portion of fantastic food for just $7? He could hardly be making $1 on the meal, if that.
My friend’s confit duck ($12) was fantastic, and melted in your mouth in tube-clogging joy, with the perfect balance of tender, rich-tasting leg meat to fat.
We were given a shot of orange rum, and finished with a very decent cheese plate ($6) – goat’s cheese, Roquefort, Camembert, and a surprisingly good version of that dullest of all fromages, Port Salut.
Le Bistrot is not pretty or elegant. Nor is it trying to be. It simply represents an instinct to feed on good quality French food, and at a very wallet-friendly price, with a perfect view of the bawdy madness of Street 51. Just don’t take a camera.
Le Bistrot de Paris, #52, Street 51, Phnom Penh. Meal for two, including drinks and service: $40