THERE is a subtle air of confidence when a restaurant, as a matter of principle, chooses to banish salt and pepper shakers from the tables, along with ketchup and chilli sauces, allowing the food to speak for itself.
Tucked away in a small yet quaint alcove in BKK1 and backed by six years of success in Sihanoukville, Happa Restaurant offers a distinct Japanese-Khmer dining experience in Phnom Penh that should not be missed. Specialising in teppanyaki-style cuisine, Happa delivers more than 50 food selections, all made-to-order. Half the dishes cost $3 or less, making it affordable enough to venture into unfamiliar territory.
As aromas cascade from the teppan, a large metal skillet serving as the centrepiece of the open dining area, spherical paper lamps dangle overhead from single strands of frayed rope, warmly illuminating the relaxed environment. Familiar sounds from the streets of Phnom Penh are replaced by an extensive collection of blues melodies as the food sizzles.
Aubergine, tofu and paprika – topped with a miso-sesame sauce ($1.50), offers a sizeable portion that will please vegetarians and adventurous meat-eaters who are open to soothing their palates with the grilled, bite-size morsels. Most dishes are infused with one of six sauces, giving visitors the freedom to mix them if they choose. For example, the fish fillet in garlic-ginger sauce ($2) is delicious, while also having the option to serenade it with apple-onion or Kroeng, a Cambodian sauce.
Moving on to lamb skewers dashed with rosemary ($7.75), the chunks of meat are frustratingly inconsistent in texture, ranging between tender, firm or chewy. An ideal selection to share is the mix meat grill platter, the most expensive dish on the menu ($12.25) but unlikely to break the bank. The platter consists of three meats: beef, crocodile and lamb, joined by a generous arrangement of vegetables including green beans, peppers, carrots, onions and fried potatoes – all cooked to perfection. The potatoes, in particular, are mouth-watering. If you feel unable to shake the desire for a bottle of ketchup, we have a tip: staff have one on hand for special requests. Be warned, however, there is a distinct taste and texture to these potatoes that ketchup will only spoil. Let your taste buds do the work and resist the urge.
A variety of Japanese dishes are up for grabs, including six to eight pieces of sashimi or sushi ($3 for either), cut from a limited selection of 13 fish possibilities, including barracuda, but best to call ahead as the supply depends on the fresh catch brought from Sihanoukville.
The Japanese-style potato croquette set ($5.25), served as hot pockets of soft potato encased in a crisp batter includes sweet and sour sauce for dipping, as well as miso soup, salad and Japanese rice. Arriving in a set of three, be prepared to fight for the third croquette if you bring company.
The lunch menu at Happa also offers a great selection at affordable prices. Main dishes come with miso soup, rice, salad and a drink for $3.50. Cambodian favourites such as fish amok and lok lak are available daily, along with a decent wine menu too.
Abiding by the same recipes and a similar ambience that has made its larger sister restaurant in Sihanoukville a success story, Happa feels more like a reward than a gamble, reminding us that a pleasurable dining experience can incorporate simple, affordable food – without compromising on taste.
Happa is located at #17 Street 278, Phnom Penh. Open from11:30 – 14:30 and 17:00 – 22:00 daily. Reservations are preferable for larger groups (Tel: 023 630 2254).
Photos and words by Kenneth Ingram
Phnom Penh Post – 24 Jun 2011