Eat: Fine dining at Van's Restaurant

Personally, I think everyone who comes to Phnom Penh should go to Van's at least once.  

We discovered Van's by accident a couple of years ago.  We had met up with a friend who was visiting from overseas, we met at Raffles for happy hour and were then heading on to La Marmite, which turned out to be closed for renovations.  We had not been in Phnom Penh very long and so, in a desperate attempt to save the evening, we quickly flicked through our friend's Lonely Planet guide looking for something else close by.

Lonely Planet recommended Van's, so off we went.  The Lonely Planet, somewhat misleadingly, also states that dishes start from $5.  After a cursory glance a the menu, we quickly decided that we would just splurge and enjoy ourselves.  And that's exactly what we did.

I remember that evening as being one of the best meals we've had in Phnom Penh.  I don't remember clearly what we ate (although I have some idea my main dish included veal and mushrooms), I also remember a very nice red wine, but what stood out was the grand building and fantastic service.

Van's is located in the old Indochine Bank, you can actually still peek into the old vaults on the ground floor.  The dining room is in what was previously the offices.  Intrigued by the building I asked one of the waitresses about the history.  She politely excused herself and came back a few minutes later with an elderly gentlemen, who she said would be able to tell us.  The gentleman told us his name, which I have since forgotten, and proceeded to tell us a lively and interesting account of both the building and the Van family.  It is primarily his story telling that made this such a memorable meal.

I would thoroughly recommend Vans as a special occasion restaurant in Phnom Penh. However, the bill for the evening was considerably more than we were used to paying in Phnom Penh and more than we could make room for in our budget on a regular basis.

That was until we discovered the lunchtime set menu.   Everyday Van's offers a daily dish for $9, or as part of a two course menu with wine and coffee for just $15.  

At this price and for the quality, I think this is one of the best value meals in town.  

Every time we come to Van's we are offered a complimentary appetizer   Always a tasty morsel, when we went a couple of weeks ago it was smoked salmon.

Warm white and walnut rolls.

The dish of the day was pan-fried veal picatta style, served with asparagus gnocchi and truffle oil.  Along with a glass of the lovely house Merlot.

Not only is the food beautiful, the servings are very generous.  I was a little nervous about the gnocchi as I have tried a number of attempts at gnocchi in Phnom Penh, all of which have been terrible.  But this gnocchi was perfect.

Dessert was profiteroles with homemade mint ice-cream.  The ice-cream was lovely with a mild mint flavour.

And coffee and tea to finish.

As always, the service was impeccable.  This is one of those places where the staff manage to make you feel like you are their most important guests.

To me, this is the perfect affordable indulgence.

The set menu offers only one option for mains and your choice of entree or dessert.  If you're a little bit fussy (like the Boy), you can check out the dish of the day online before you go, the weekly menu is published every Monday.  If you do stop by, don't forget to check out the old bank vaults to the right of the stairs before you leave.

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Eat: 2 for 1 Tuesdays at Pizza World

I have a guilty secret... I love chain-store pizza.  You know, the pizza most people say isn't "real" pizza, the one with a thick doughy base, loads of melted cheese, and things that wouldn't be caught dead on a "real" Italian pizza, the ones that sometimes have melted cheese inside the crust (mmmm).  I'm not proud of it, but it's true.

Don't get me wrong.  I love "real" wood-fired Italian pizza too (the sort you can get here and here), and I wouldn't dream of comparing the two.  But every so often I get a craving for the fast food style deep dish pizza.  The only problem is, while in Australia that type of pizza is about the cheapest dinner you can get to feed a crowd, in Cambodia they are (comparatively) expensive and if you want it delivered it's even worse.

That is, until Tuesdays.  On Tuesdays I can get my fix of cheesy deep dish goodness, because Pizza World has 2 for 1!  That is precisely the reason why last week we trekked over to Sovanna in the pouring rain.  To have one (actually two) of these bad boys:

We had the Hawaiian, good sizes chunks of meaty bacon and loads of pineapple and cheese.

I recommend sitting near the salad bar so you can witness first hand the impressive Khmer salad bar technique.  

Honestly, it's almost an art form and enables you to get enough salad to feed a large family into a small side salad bowl.  The ultimate in salad-bar value.   For the uninitiated, here's how it's done:

Alternatively, you could just stand at the salad bar looking a little pathetic and one of the staff will probably come and help you.

Either way it makes for interesting viewing over dinner.
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Do: Swim at L'Elephant Blanc

After hearing about the swimming pool at L'Elephant Blanc for ages, I finally made it there this weekend to check it out.

I was pretty impressed with the pool, it's  large salt water pool and there's also a small kids pool.  Apparently it gets pretty busy on the weekends, but as you can see we had the area to ourselves at 11 am on Saturday.

Non-guests can access the pool for $4 (for adults, $2 for children) on weekends and public holidays, and for half that during the week.  Of course, the other option is to stay here (check out their website).

There's also a cafe, the prices are average (around $5 for a meal), I'd recommend choosing from the Asian dishes, as the sandwich I had was not great (sweet bread, plastic cheese...).  But we did enjoy the cool drinks.

L'Elephant Blanc is about 10kms (about 30 mins drive, depending on traffic) from the centre of Phnom Penh.  To get there cross the Monivong Bridge and continue along National Road 1 for about 6 kms.  You'll see the resort on your left.

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Friday Faves

Being Friday and all, here's a few of my favourite things from this week...

- Getting up early to go out for breakfast before work on Tuesday.  Sure beats making it yourself!

French Toast at The Shop, served with Passionfruit sauce

- An opportunity to wear my favourite shoes.

Made in Cambodia by Beautiful Shoes

- This curry - delicious, creamy, fragrant and slightly sweet.

- This great alternative to the ugly bars you see on most windows.  Wonder if I could convince our landlord to install something like this.

- Unwinding with a massage at Amret 

- Happily wasting time solving this:

I hope you all had a great week and have an even better weekend!
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Do: Massage (Amret Spa)

It's been a busy week.  One of those weeks where I can't really figure out why it's been so busy.  All I know is I've been falling into bed each night exhausted and feeling like there's still so much to do. There's only one thing to do in a week like that, and that is take some time out for massage.  

Massages must be one of my favourite things about living in Phnom Penh.  Before we moved here I'd been to a spa for a massage twice (both times were gifts).  It was lovely, but so expensive, not really something I could justify doing on a regular basis.

But here massages are an affordable indulgence.  You can get massage for about $4, but I choose to pay a bit more than that to be able to go to a spa and enjoy the atmosphere as well.  We usually head to Amret Spa on Street 57 (just around the corner from Sihanouk Boulevard) mainly because its convenient, reasonably priced and pleasant.

As I've only ever had two massages before coming here, I don't claim to really be an expert on what a good massage is, and to be honest I'm looking for a relaxing rather than a therapeutic experience, but I always leave Amret nice and relaxed.

If you're looking for value I recommend the Back and Shoulder Massage ($10 for 60 mins), which is purely a relaxation massage.  If you're looking for something a bit more serious the deep tissue massage is $18 for 60 mins and is a full body massage, I also like the aromatherapy massage which is slightly less intense than the deep tissue massage.

They often have special deals as well, a couple of days when we went they had a 90 min deep tissue massage for the price of 60 mins.  What could be more relaxing than a 90 minute massage??

There's also a variety of scrubs, baths and facials if that's what you're after.

How cool is this sink?  I want one!

I think the complimentary tea that is waiting for you after your massage might be one of the yummiest teas I've ever had. I'm not sure exactly what's in it, but it has a kind of vanilla flavour that is almost sweet.  The Boy's not into it so I always drink his too!

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Eat: Gastrobar Botanico

I like to think of myself as adventurous, but I'm really not.  This is perhaps most evident when trying new places.  I like to try new spots, but I want to know 'what I'm getting in to' as it were.  I want to be able to peer through the window and see what it's like and who's there. I'm also a big fan of menus out the front that I can peruse before committing myself.  The problem is, in Phnom Penh, many of the best finds are hidden away behind tall walls and sturdy gates.

A good example is Gastrobar Botanico.  I pass their rather beautiful door 3 or 4 times a week.  I always admire it and wonder what lies behind it, but I have never entered it, mainly because I wasn't really sure what was inside.  But, finally, this week I took the Boy with me, and we ventured through the door and down the garden path.

(Seriously, I think this is one of the prettiest doors I've ever seen - how could I resist?)

At the end of the path it does almost feel like you've wandered into a secret garden.  Little booths sit in secluded bungalows surrounded by lush foliage.  

The menu is small but interesting, with a bit of a Spanish feel.  We started with Patates Bravas with some of the creamiest and garlic-iest aoili I've ever had.  It was delicious.

I had the Chicken Milanesa sandwich.

The Boy had tenderloin with cheesy potato hash and fried eggs.  The fried eggs lay on a bed of meat, fried potato and onion and loads of melted cheese.

After lunch this gorgeous butterfly stopped by our table. : )

Botanico is just around the corner from the Independence Monument, but once you're inside you can totally forget that you are in the centre of town.  They have happy hour in the evenings with free tapas with each round of drinks.
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Eat: Ebony Tree & Coffee Republic

I've been trying out a few more places in my (work) neighbourhood.  I regularly pass the Ebony Tree, and finally decided to give it a go.

I was the only person there and it was quite clear that my presence meant that the kitchen staff could no longer sit in the shady garden chatting to each other.  But, to be fair, the garden is lovely, so who could really blame them.

A moment after I sat down a fan and a mosquito coil were placed at my table to ensure I'd be completely comfortable. 

I ordered a Chicken and Pomelo salad.  I love Pomelo and it really made this salad.  The chicken was warm and the salad was fresh, tasty and filling.

In addition to the cafe there is a, small, boutique at the back of the cafe which I had a quick peek into before I left.

Rather than getting my coffee here, I decided to duck next door to the Coffee Republic.  Situated at the back of Skyline Hotel and Apartments, this place claims to be the best coffee house in Cambodia.  A claim that I felt compelled to test.

There is a wide range of coffees available.  My coffee was pretty good, although I don't know whether it's the best in Phnom Penh.  That being said sitting by the pool was very relaxing.  The cafe has a limited breakfast and lunch menu, as well as some pastries and muffins available too.

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Snapshot: Boy on Buffalo

We were just wandering down a dirt track on the outskirts of Phnom Penh when we came across this boy, and his buffalo.

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