It’s disappointing when you go into a restaurant expecting to love it, and come away underwhelmed. That’s exactly what happened when I took two loved ones to Il Forno recently. Everything about the place, a relatively new upscale contemporary Italian restaurant which, after doing well in Siem Reap, opened recently on Street 302 in BKK1, says it should be good. It looks good. It feels good. It’s menu looks promising. It’s welcoming. Its staff are attentive. Hell, even the pricing seems reasonable.
But the most important factor – the food – on our visit at least was little better than poor.
Let’s start with the basics. Il Forno is a well-designed, sophisticated, welcoming space. Located in what looks to be a purpose built building, it is modern, warm and stylish. A large wall of wine welcomes you as you walk in, and a comfortable bar is on your left. The fixtures and fittings look expensive, and a large pizza oven in the corner of the restaurant augurs well. There is some impressive looking modern art on the walls and one entire side of the restaurant is a glass wall through which a pretty nifty water feature is displayed. So far so good.
We are welcomed by well presented Khmer staff who find a table for us on a busy night and we order a couple of beers to start while we look at the menu. A friendly Italian guy that I assume is the owner or manager comes over and welcomes us and makes sure everything is ok so far. It is.
The menu looks pretty damn good. With the usual range of Italian appetisers, pizzas, pastas and meat and fish dishes you would expect, supplemented curiously by a selection of sandwiches for $4-$5 which, although Italian sounding (Positano – which is Fior di Latte Mozzarella and Fresh Pesto, or Rustico – Cooked Ham Taleggio with Grilled Eggplant) seemed a little out of place. Perhaps they do a good trade in them during the lunch trade.
We decided to order some starters and chose Bruschetta with Calamari Ragout ($6.50) and Tuna Carpaccio ($10). They arrived about ten minutes later and – for the price –looked underwhelming. The bruschetta bread was fine, but for $6 I was expecting a bit more than four pieces with an uninspiring mixture of what must be calamari offcuts mixed with an (admittedly) piquante tomato seafood sauce.
The Carpaccio was similarly limp. Served on a large square glass plate, it tasted pretty much as it looked – flat, uninspiring and lifeless. It’s hard to make a plate of raw tuna and lemon juice tasteless, but that’s exactly what this was. Badly prepared – it looked like the fish had been sliced using a blunt penknife – haphazardly presented and very very disappointing. 3/10 guys. Not good.
We put this down to a bad start, and poured ourselves a glass each of decent house red – a Santa Cristina for $20 – and watched as the tables around us filled quickly on what was turning out to be a busy night. We settled in to wait for our mains. We waited. And we waited. And waited. And waited.
A couple at the next table arrived fifteen minutes after us, and their mains arrived so long before ours that they had finished eating before we started. Table after table followed us in, and were eating before us, while we sat aimlessly and looked in in growing annoyance. It started to feel personal. At one point we were close to getting up and walking out, but our waiter assured us ‘come five minute, sir’ so we stuck too it, draining the bottle of wine long before we planned to.
Even after our dishes arrived, there was more waiting. I had ordered the spicy salami pizza ($8 for the regular size which is more than enough for one person, and perhaps enough for a light-eating couple), but had asked if anchovies could be added. No problem sir, but of course the pizza arrived salty-fishless, so they took it back for another few minutes to add anchovies. When it returned, it was clear the pizza guy had simply added cold anchovies on top, without bothering to give it another 30 seconds in the oven. Nice one.
The pizza? Well, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was ok. It had a very tasty dough – one of the best I’ve had in Phnom Penh, to be fair – but the tomato sauce was tasteless. It felt like they had simply blended a tin of plum tomatoes, and not bothered to add any herbs or spices or seasoning. It felt lazy, and I’ve had much better pizzas at several places around town, including the much cheaper St 172.
My partner ordered Seared Imported Tuna with Roquette and Tomatoes ($16). Now if there is one thing that any seared tuna dish should be it is cooked properly. The tuna should be seared, not cooked all the way through. It’s not hard to do. Heat the pan to a good temperature, and stick the fish in for a minute or so either side. Done. The flesh should be succulent pink in the middle, like a medium rare steak. It shouldn’t be cooked all the way through, rendering the fish dry and a dull white colour.
Needless to say the tuna was cooked all the way through. Dry, tasteless and boring. So bad in fact that she questioned whether it was really tuna at all, and not some cheap Chinese knockoff. This is Cambodia, after all.
The third member of our table ordered something described on the menu as Rosticciana: Wood Oven Backed [sic] Pork Spear [sic] Ribs Marinated in Honey & Mustard Seeds ($14). Ok, in fairness she shouldn’t have ordered pork spare ribs in an Italian restaurant but she is 13, loves ribs and isn’t a great fan of Italian food. If it’s on the menu, then it’s fair game to order the damn thing.
Big mistake. If you order pork spare ribs, it’s fair to expect a glistening rack of spare ribs, moist and succulent with the meat falling off the bone, and dripping in a tangy barbecue sauce. Instead she was served a huge 500 gram chunk (there is no other word for it) of dry pork that, after four or five mouthfuls, had the poor girl complaining of jaw ache. It was the very opposite of what you would expect when you order spare ribs.
The owner, seeing her struggle to put a dent in the half a pig occupying her plate, offered to pack it up for her to take home later. ‘No thanks,’ she replied disdainfully. And this is a girl who lives for pork.
Three main courses: one respectable, but dull. One overcooked and tasteless. One a downright disaster. As we ate, I looked wistfully at the table next to us who had ordered simple pasta dishes. In fairness, they looked very good.
I’d like to think I will order a pasta dish on my next visit to Il Forno, but I know I won’t because I’m unlikely to return, especially when there are so many better options in town. We cancelled our plans to have a dessert and a coffee, paid the $78 bill quickly and pretended to the waiter that it all was well, and left quickly. As we walked through the doors to the warm night air, we looked at each other, looked back at the admittedly beautiful building before jumping into a tuk tuk, and both agreed that it really should have been a lot better than it was. But it wasn’t. It was just – well –poor.