It was with slight trepidation that I went to Topaz a couple of weeks ago. On one hand it is consistently mentioned as one of Phnom Penh’s best restaurants; on the other hand a semicolon barely separates that statement from it being Phnom Penh’s most expensive restaurant. It was Wednesday, April 13th, Khmer New Year, a time for a celebration. However, earlier that day I had been denied by three restaurants for lunch, two closed and one practically out of food, and while settling on a fourth where we were warned the head chef was gone for the week. After a lackluster report from a friend just weeks before, I doubted if this was the night to give Topaz’s new location a try.
In conclusion, as a preface and in no means meant to be spoiler, we were all glad that we went. We entered the meal knowing a few things, including that we would not be eating oysters (up to $9 per oyster!), nor the cheese plate for dessert (as we’d been advised the slices were more slivers, which is surprising as Khéma is a sister restaurant). Other than that, we entered completely open minded.
We arrived with a reservation for five, but the dining room was surprisingly packed. After a moment of discussion we were led through the foyer, and into the back garden. From this courtyard view the new building looked more like a modern arts museum than a restaurant. There was a fountain and small pool to the right, albeit drained at the moment, and a glass wall to the left with a view of the kitchen. As we walked by every chef in the kitchen turned and greeted us through the glass, but our eyes were on the shiny and spotless new kitchen. We were then led into a private room, with a long table able to sit 20, but having five place mats set. Initially slightly awkward, one of our dining party reminded us we came to dinner to talk and eat, and not look at surroundings and listen to music, so we settled into our private room (which I’m not 100% sure our host didn’t specifically ask for).
We each decided to order both a starter and an entree, and as it turned out at the end of the meal we couldn’t resist the desserts. The menu does present a number of offerings, and as is the tradition in this particular restaurant group the menu items are accompanied with artful photos of most dishes (apologies for my quick iPhone shots); not like a cheap corner restaurant, but well designed and offering an opportunity to eat with your eyes before even ordering. Our party’s orders started with two orders of the salmon tartare with caviar, one escargot, and two grilled prawn salads.
We ordered a bottle of Moët to begin the evening off with, and this helped to start the meal off on a positive note, as only champagne can. The salmon tartare was excellent, with two types of fish eggs on top, including large salmon roe that popped in the mouth, and a small dollop of caviar. It was a healthy serving of salmon, and well received by everyone that tried it. The escargots were presented in six individual ramekins lined up like a row of shots, with enough butter (full of garlic and parsley) in one to raise my cholesterol by double digits; my heart thanked me for only eating one, and not all six. But, they were delicious, and very much in the French spirit of escargot, although with a modern twist of a small puff pastry (vol au vent) adoring each ramekin like a top hat. The salads were also well received; a light entry into the meal with several large and well seasoned prawns on top. Somehow a few items escaped our order, most notably the soup Elysée, which is a double consommé with black truffles, foie gras, and vegetables baked in a ‘crust’ (so, a fancy bread bowl). The lobster bisque and beef tartare with foie gras were two other notable items that may be ordered on our next visit.
Main courses on the menu range from a $10 spaghetti bolognese to a $78 prime rib (or $98 for two), and everything in between. Our order consisted of a seared scallops with caviar (at a surprisingly good value of $22), a seared sea bass fillet, a butter-poached lobster with foie gras (actually two of these), and the ravioles stuffed with foie gras and cep mushrooms.
The presentations were all well done, with the lobster and foie gras understandably being the star, although the sea bass looked a little bleak, with a monotone of colors due to the fish hiding all of the colorful vegetables. Luckily, the taste more than made up for this, with a playful foam and succulent sauce blending together for a powerful bite. After one of the party’s first tastes of his lobster and foie gras, with the decadent sauce, he instantly insisted that everyone try it by proclaiming “wow, that’s good.” The lobster claws were extremely tender and sweet, and although I find it hard to believe they are anything but frozen in this country, I honestly could not tell. The raviolis were a relatively simple dish, with just a light foam and a creamy sauce, but simple does not mean boring, and the foie gras and mushroom mixture certainly elevated the pasta, not to mention a thinly shaved truffle atop each of the four pieces.
Accompanying our dinner we chose a 2009 Margaux, a grand vin de bordeaux, which matched well with the seafood and foie gras focus of the entrees (it was La Rose de Labégorce, a reasonably priced bottle that did stand out to us – 2009 was a superb year and we’re really just starting to be able to enjoy it, so keep an eye out on menus for Bordeaux from this year).
We were more than satisfied with our meal, feeling rather full, so when the dessert menus came out I wasn’t even tempted to open it. But then, as is apt to happen, one person decided to order the crêpe flambé, and before we knew it everyone had placed an order. They offer a Grand Marnier soufflé, which is not a common sight on a menu due to the difficulty in perfecting the dish, and be warned that there is a 25 minute wait once you order it. We didn’t mind waiting, but in the future we may save ourselves the trouble by ordering it earlier (it would have been nice if they had let us know before).
I chose the bananes flambé with rum (hey, that’s kind of healthy, right?), and we also ordered a classic crème brûlée. The two crêpes and the bananas were flambeed in front of us, which is always a fun presentation to watch, and the crème brûlée was beautiful – it was certainly a ‘classic,’ however I have never seen it served outside of the ramekin before. They perfected the baking of the soufflé, and there’s simply nowhere else in Phnom Penh that I know of where you can get that dish (however, shout out to Bouchon’s cheese soufflé, another example of a successful soufflé in town, albeit a very different dish altogether).
We ended the meal with a round of espresso, and truly had no complaints. The service was excellent throughout, food was top notch, and the bill was actually very reasonable for what we had. Everything included, 5 starters, entrees, desserts and espresso, along with the champagne and wine, came to almost $500 exactly. By no means inexpensive, but I would say that it was a great value for the money.
Will it become our go-to Saturday dinner spot? Not a chance. But will we return for special occasions, or to take visitors who are in town? Absolutely. And I would recommend the same if you enjoy top quality French dining – we are lucky to have the talented Luu Ming, director of Thalias Group and Asia’s top chef (2014), in our city, and we should all take advantage of it from time to time by treating ourselves to an excellent meal at any of his restaurants. Bonus points if you can expense it.