In a city where food options abound and where restaurants and cafes open and close almost daily, it takes something special to keep doing the same thing year after year and remain successful. Focusing on developing a good formula that people like, and being renowned for consistent quality is a recipe for success. It’s something Phnom Penh institution Armand’s has been doing for years. And long may it continue.
My visit to Armand’s last week was my first, which is rather surprising because I’m a big fan of splurging on good French food once in a while. I used to love La Petite Lyon when it was in business, and Bouchon is a semi-regular favourite but I’d never made it to Street 108 and I’m struggling to figure out why. I don’t know; maybe Armands’ location amidst some crappy girlie bars put me off, or maybe it just never made it onto my radar. My loss. I will be back.
Khmer440 first reviewed Armands in 2011. After going there, I looked at that review and initially thought I could just cut and paste it for this review – my experience was so similar. Great quality food in general, a simple and classical menu, excellent service and overall good value for money. Even the pictures taken then looked familiar. The pictures I took are almost identical. It is as if time stood still.
At first I was disappointed – it struck me as unimaginative at best, almost lazy at worst – but then I realized that rather than being uninspiring or boring, it was actually a sign of quality and longevity. If Armand’s can keep doing the same thing so well, can be so predictably good, then it deserves its position as a Phnom Penh dining institution.
I went with a couple of friends on an oppressively warm Friday night in early June. We made a booking, but it wasn’t necessary. In fact, when we entered around 8pm there were only two groups in, which was surprising. I’m not a fan of empty restaurants – they make me feel awkward and stifle conversation – but within 20 minutes two more groups had arrived and the vibe changed from silent to pleasantly buzzing.
The first thing you notice about Armand’s is the impressive setting. High quality fixtures and fittings, pure white tablecloths, an impressively stocked bar area with two or three people sipping cocktails (usually with Armand seated there himself) and some nice artwork on the walls. Also on the wall are chalkboards advertising high-end wines, some of which run to over $1000 a bottle. I’m sure special groups order them sometimes, but that’s way out of my league. It’s not an issue though; the regular wine menu includes some reasonably priced bottles. Being cheap, we opted for the $20 house red, and it was very good.
We didn’t bother with a starter, but evidently the French onion soup is the best in town. Instead, we gorged on the fresh baguettes that kept appearing at the table like clockwork, as soon as the last piece had finished. Sometimes it’s the little things that impress most: Phnom Penh has some great restaurants but in so many of them (Duck take notice) the good food is ruined by poor service. Not so at Armands. As soon as your water is empty, it’s refilled. Last piece of bread gone? A new batch arrives in seconds. Drop your fork on the floor? The waiter is has a new one for you almost immediately. They also brought us a free serving of excellent tomato and anchovy bruschetta. Service like that is worth paying a bit extra for.
Armand’s menu isn’t extensive, but it’s packed full of simple well-cooked French classics. The mains menu consists of maybe 10 items including the usual chicken, duck, lamb etc, but anyone who knows anything about eating in Phnom Penh comes to Armand’s for one thing, and one thing only: the superb tenderloin fillet steaks cooked flambé at the table. All three of us ordered them, two on their own while I went for the tenderloin rosini, cooked with a juicy slab of foie gras on top.
Armand’s steaks are top quality Australian imports and they are cooked to perfection, a beautiful pink medium rare, and served with a brandy peppercorn sauce. To say they are tender is an understatement, and I’m doing everything I can to avoid using the overused ‘melt in the mouth’ cliché, but it’s impossible to resist. They are certainly the best steaks in Phnom Penh, and comparable with any steak around the world. And at $22 for the regular steak and $25 for the tenderloin rosini, they are pretty good value too. Armand’s isn’t cheap; if you want cheap Phnom Penh has more than enough options. But neither is it overpriced. It’s an excellent option for the occasional treat.
If there is one complaint it is that it would be nice to mix up the sides a little now and again: the sides served in the 2011 review were identical to those we had – roasted potatoes, green beans and a strange tomato side covered in a powder-like substance that didn’t taste of anything. All of these were cooked fine, but it would be nice to try with creamy scalloped potato maybe, or a garlic butter drizzled grilled field mushroom. A bit of variety would make all the difference.
The dessert menu is similarly small and similarly classic, with all of them in $6-$8 range. We ordered a chocolate mousse and Baked Alaska. The mousse was rich and creamy and if it was a little heavy and dense it made up for it by tasting great despite being served in what looked like a bowl you would use to feed your cat. The Baked Alaska was, candidly, a disappointment – heavy and unappetizing. The cheese selection would have been a better choice. Next time.
We ordered a round of sambuca (complete with coffee bean) to finish off the meal, and were pleasantly surprised when the Khmer waiter (complete with obligatory pencil moustache a la francaise) presented us with some complimentary brandies also, another example of the maxim that it’s the little things that impress the most and will keep people coming back. A very good 8/10, let down marginally by the desserts.