A new cocktail lounge and supper club in Phnom Penh, simply named Est bar, blends great style with a certain comfortable panache.
Medieval legend has it that before Italian monks would set out on journeys between monasteries, they would first send forth a scout, whose sole task was to go on ahead and locate the inn that served the finest food and wine in town. These scouts were something akin to food bloggers of the Dark Ages however, instead of firing up their tablets, taking a selfie and checking in on social media, they would simply graffiti the wall of a chosen tavern with the single word, “Est”, a Latin term meaning “it is”. When the senior monk would eventually ride into town, he could quickly locate the village’s finest establishment and get down to the important matter of raising his spirits and replenishing his soul.
Phnom Penh’s modern version of Est is next door to Nova nightclub, opposite the Maline apartment building on the dining, café and clubbing precinct that is Street 214. Entry is via a narrow garden pathway complete with its own soundtrack, then on through a large and impressive timber ‘pivot’ door. Once inside you find yourself in a discreet urban space that raises the bar both literally and metaphorically with its style and with conceptual elements like the atrium, bars on two levels and a veranda overlooking the garden. As a cocktail lounge (upstairs) and a supper club (downstairs) it’s more the upstairs smoking and downstairs non-smoking that tends to determine where guests prefer to eat and drink.
Chef Karl McNally is an Irishman who was taught to cook classical French cuisine in his native Dublin before discovering Pacific Rim and Asian ingredients whilst cooking his way up and down the east coast of Australia. A recent short stop in Cambodia to recharge the batteries began to drag on and when the position of head chef was offered at Est, Karl decided to stick around and see how he liked it.
The culinary offerings are a range of modern and diverse dishes that come served as small sharing plates, which to me seems perfectly appropriate for a supper club.
First a couple of snack style dishes, the baked cauliflower florets, infused with cheese and truffle oil, have a wonderful flavour, it’s important to show restraint with truffle oil and these are well balanced and delicious; it’s hard to stop popping them into your mouth and I was tempted to order another serving.
Finnish meatballs come in a cognac demi-glace with hints of all-spice, nutmeg and black pepper, these are so delicious that they may become a reason to delay going straight home and driving across town for a midnight serving. The meatballs themselves are fresh and juicy with good fat content and no drying out; the spice balance shows a deft touch and the savoury, glutamate, umami flavours border on addictive.
I then moved on to a couple of the more substantial plates; a slipper lobster salad served in a large martini glass, complete with gin dressing and orange segments, the lobster is succulent, the citrus adds freshness and the greens are crisp and fresh, the gin adding botanicals and blending nicely with the orange’s flavours and acidity -without overwhelming the lobster. A well thought out dish that is complex, well-structured and nicely presented.
Next up was one of my favourite proteins in the form of a duck pie; the pastry was flaky, crispy, nicely done, duck meat was juicy, full of flavour and most importantly, it was moist and tender; one of the common errors with a duck pie is to overcook and dry out the main ingredient, this was baked to perfection and an immediate favourite with a glass of red wine.
Overall, the quality of the food being turned out by Karl McNally at Est bar is exceptionally good, all the more so when you see the tiny kitchen he has to work in. So far, he seems to be enjoying his role as Phnom Penh’s accidental chef, the owners of Est will do well to make sure his sticking around is purely intentional.
Prices ranged from around $5 to $7 dollars with a $10 rib eye steak, all ridiculously cheap for the quality and thus continuing the tradition of incredibly good value dining in Cambodia. Service is friendly, charming and cheerful.
The mixology is also worth mentioning at Est bar, which has a talented team led by bar manager Henry, who just loves to riff on classic cocktails with modern tinctures, accents and infusions creating high quality mixers with a great sense of style.