Where to eat and drink: Battambang

Battambang: Where to eat and drink

When we first started frequenting Battambang it was more or less White Rose, White Rose or … White Rose. Mercifully, things have moved on dramatically with plenty of alternatives offered across a range of palates, and some real spice has been added to the mix now with the recent opening of Jaan Bai.

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Jaan Bai is a training restaurant set up by the Cambodia Children’s Trust with the backing of Australian chef David Thompson - the man largely credited with bringing Thai food to the world. It is a smart, urban set up with a short menu of delicious Thai and Khmer dishes that guests are encouraged to order tapas-style and share with their friends. It’s only been open for a short while, but is now firmly affixed to any decent must-do list for Battambang. We would add that the cocktails are just as compelling as the food.

The White Rose is still there, still reliably packed and can still be counted on to churn out cheap Khmer food if that’s what you’re after, though be prepared to wait. Mains are around $3.

Not far behind them, also on Street 2, Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh, aka the Chinese Noodle Shop, is the place to go for delicious house-made noodles stirred into fries, soups and more. The duck noodle soup is a firm recommend. At an average of $1.75 per bowl, we could come back here a lot, and there are rewards to be had too in the meditative style in which the food is prepared - when it’s quiet.

Nary Kitchen opened in 2009 and is a short stroll from the centre of town, but offers by far the best fish amok in town. The atmosphere is very simple; it’s just the owner’s house with four tables under an awning. The cook, Nary, prepares your meal in her own kitchen using only fresh ingredients. Expect to wait 40 minutes for your meal to be prepared as everything is made from scratch. The welcome here is so warm though that you’ll soon see fit to forgive them anything. In addition, Khmer cooking classes are offered for $10 per person for a four-course meal including dessert. Highly recommended.

Tucked away down 2.5 Street, Fresh Eats Cafe was set up to help local disadvantaged kids learn hospitality skills and English in a similar scheme to the famous Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh. All profits go towards providing accommodation and the aforementioned training. Their shakes and juices are very good while food covers Khmer and Western choices including quite a range of breakfasts and salads, crepes and sandwiches. More substantial dinner fare may require booking in advance though. Prices are average and service is friendly though be prepared to wait a while.

Located in the heart of Battambang, Khmer Delight offers a wide range of typical Khmer cuisine and fine Western favourites such as burgers, fish and chips and Aussie-style meat pies. For breakfast, a gluttonous $5 big breakfast is available if you’re starving; otherwise, more sensible (and cheaper) options are offered. The New Guinea coffee, served in a European-style coffee press, is excellent for those in need of a strong brew. 50 cent drafts run from 17:00 till 20:00.

The night market sets up along the river bank just south of the town’s museum from late afternoon onwards, and is a lively spot to join the locals for an evening beer and snack. Noodles, nibbles, beers and juices are available in a string of pavement stalls — fun and cheap.

Flavors of India is run by the same guys behind the well-known Phnom Penh branch. The food is fairly standard ‘Anglo-Indian’ fare with a few extra Nepalese flourishes (the manager is Nepalese). The opening of an Indian restaurant usually indicates a town has well and truly hit the tourist map and while there may well be better options from the sub-continent available in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, Flavors isn’t bad at all and seems to be doing very well. Starters go from $3 to $5 and mains are around $5 to $7. An extensive menu and, as usual with Indian food, plenty of decent vegetarian options.

Beautiful and breezily romantic, The Pomme D’Amour -- run by the same French guy who owns Madison Corner -- is another great food option. The French and Khmer kitchen staff serve up some excellent Khmer, French and fusion dishes which considering the quality are very good value for money, with mains running from $5 to $9. They also have a tasty selection of flavoured rums, as is the French wont. Treat yourself to some fine dining – it’s well worth a bit of a splurge here.

Au Caberet Vert is another French-run location proposing ‘fine dining’. Cabaret Vert offers more classic or traditional French dishes than the previous entry though lacks the sumptuous decor and convenient location. The setting is very pretty though, in a colonial-style villa with an open front that looks out on to a small, landscaped garden. It gets good reviews from the small Francophone community though and prices are comparable to La Villa with mains running from $6 to $19, for a beef Rossini, which is pretty good value really.

More classic French fare in very classical French ambience is on offer at La Villa. Prices are very reasonable for the quality you’re getting so these days you’re spoilt for choice French food-wise in Battambang. Expect to pay around $15 to $20 for starter plus main course, with a good selection of wines available. The bar area is a classy hang-out for a couple of early evening glasses of wine as well.

Surprisingly few entries in Battambang’s new cafe scene have riverfront locations but Cafe Eden is one of them with a Street 1 address between Psas Nath and Sar Kheng Bridge, and offering pavement, interior or upstairs seating options. The cafe styles itself as a bistro and food choices are eclectic. There’s a wide range of breakfasts including crepes, bagels and tortillas followed by a similarly wide range of lunch, dinner and bar snack options including Thai, Khmer, Korean, Japanese, Chinese plus pasta, pizzas, burgers and sandwiches. If that’s not enough there’s a board with daily specials. You’d need several weeks to try everything on their menu but the dishes we sampled were all pretty good and prices reasonable – for instance pizzas at around $6, sandwiches between $4.50 and $5.50, lok lak at $3.75 or crepes at $2.50. There’s a also a comprehensive drinks menu: coffees, juices and a popular happy hour from 15:00 to 19:00. Decor is simple but fun and we liked their use of old wine bottles as menus and old jam jars as drink containers, which they were doing long before anyone had ever heard of hipsters. Eden also has a boutique selling locally created art and handicrafts. Friendly service.

A cross between a gallery and a cafe Choco l’Art Cafe will bring out the pure heathen in you as you say “to hell with the paintings, give me some more of those cakes.” You can repent of both sins later. In a simple, friendly space, the team here whisks up and serves a selection of pure cafe fare, with salads, sandwiches, omelettes, crepes and tartines served with homemade breads at really easy on the pocket prices. But the stars are the desserts. We took a tasting plate with a selection of chocolate mousse, a hazelnut and chocolate cake, vanilla cream and the most spectacular caramel sweet. We near passed out from joy. These are as good as anything we’ve had anywhere, and it was only $3 for the lot. And if that wasn’t bad/good enough, they also do a small selection of seriously tasty cocktails. The kind of place you could get addicted to.

Green Mango Cafe & Bakery is a large air-con restaurant on the east riverside near Here Be Dragons. With a wide selection of largely Western dishes like salads, soups, burgers and snacks including a Philly quesadilla ($2.75), taco salad ($4.50), sweet potato coconut soup and more, it’s bound to attract a loyal following, aided and abetted by the fact that the coffee here was really good. The setting is kind of urban 70s with comfy wood and leather chairs, and slate grey walls offset by splashes of lime green. There is also a foot spa and boutique inside the same building, which is open on Wednesday at 12:30 to 17:00 and Thursday to Saturday from 12:30 to 20:30.

As with the eating options, the town’s nightlife has picked up considerably of late and it’s now possible to have a night out, and manage to find a drink after 22:00 without having to resort to a local karaoke. Yes, the popular riverside night market with beers and snacks is still going, as are said karaokes and local-style night spots but there is now a good choice of day time cafes and coffee shops plus several tourist orientated bars offering drinks, happy hours and pub grub as well as a couple of lively late night spots.

Talking Heads, The Strokes, Rolling Stones, Bowie, Beck, Bob Dylan, the Clash. To be honest, we’re not sure we need or want to give you any other reasons for checking out Riverside Balcony Bar, but just in case, here they are. Aside from the stellar sound track the last night that we visited - all played at a volume that leaves you plenty of aural space to speak in - Balcony Bar is the longest running expat bar in Battambang, gamely clinging to the west side of the river since 2002. It’s an old school Cambodia bar in a beautiful old wooden house; honest, simple, worn-down by time and a lot of sloshed beer. It is super-relaxed, even the pool table is somewhat relaxed about where it might send your ball we recall, and an easy hang-out and doesn’t pretend to be any more than this. If you’re somewhat precocious or pretentious or iron your underwear, you won’t like it. Everyone else will just kick back and enjoy. Sadly, it also seems to be kind of clinging on to life as its slightly out of the way location and increased competition make it easier for people to decide to go elsewhere, which would be a mistake, we reckon. They used to serve a small selection of sandwiches and snacks for the hungry but have recently been taken over by a couple of American chefs with plans. A space to watch.

On the other side of the river, it’s well worth checking out the bar at Here Be Dragons even if you’re not staying in the guesthouse. It can get pretty lively as it’s popular with expats as well as visitors and stays open later than most bars in town. Wednesday evening hosts a pub quiz and there is occasional live music. Indeed at time of visiting the excellent Phnom Penh band Cambodia Space Project were down on the list of upcoming attractions so that’s a serious bid for Battambang’s top night spot designation! Choose from indoor, outdoor plus rooftop sitting areas and Khmer, Thai and Western food options are available. Open daily from early until the last customers have gone home. Happy hour daily 16:00 and 20:00.

Back in town, Madison Corner is becoming something of an institution with its 180 degree views of the surrounding streets, and all the people on them, chilled out vibe, great selection of drinks and pub grub a la francais. And if all the insatiable inertia Madison seems to inspire becomes too much for you, there’s a games room upstairs with Wii, pool, darts and more. Open until late (for Battambang).

Libations Bar. If someone had described Libations Bar to us and then told us it was in Battambang, we’d probably have snorted very inelegantly. But this terribly elegant little street side bar (do you see how this could get confusing?) is actually quite a hit. Food and drinks are served out of a wonderfully romantic hole in the wall - fitted out with the kind of glassware your granny used to serve the sherry from when the ‘good guests’ came. And despite the fact that we’ve admitted that we snort on occasion, we loved Libations, and they allowed us to stay for a drink. They serve a small selection of charcuterie, homemade rillette (which is to die for) and a cheeseboard. Few bars in Cambodia have the audacity to lead their drinks list with the Champagne, but Libations Bar does, and gets away with it. The bubbles are followed up with a small selection of red, white, rose and a collection of cocktails including premium vodka on the rocks, with an optional olive. You have to admit, that takes a certain style.

Lotus Bar and Gallery is the newest addition to the Battambang bar scene, and a very happy one at that. A modern space is beautifully crafted to make the most of the long space, with a central, lots of soft open brick work, and front and back rooms with a different feeling in each created by the different use of furniture. The floor is lined with the most beautiful tiles, which the owner worked hard to recover, while the walls are lined with art created by members of Battambang’s burgeoning art scene. This changes regularly. The menu is a mix of Khmer and Western, with some lovely middle-Eastern dishes thrown in for luck. The vibe is engaging, chatty and jolly, without being overly so. Upstairs there is more art space and a screening room where they have weekly film nights, live music and other events.

Jaan Bai: St 2; T: (078) 263 144; open Tues-Sun 11:00-22:30.
The White Rose: St 2; T: (012) 693 855; open 06:30-21:00.
Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh: St 2; open 09:00-21:00.
Nary Kitchen:#650 St 111; T: (012) 763 950
Fresh Eats cafe: #47 St 2.5; T: (053) 599 944; open 09:00-21:00.
Khmer Delight: St 119; T: (012) 434 746; open 10:00-late.
Flavors of India: #85 St 2.5; T: (053) 731 553; open 10:00-22:00.
Pomme d’Amour: St 2.5; T: (012) 415 513; open 08:30-22:30.
Au Cabaret Vert: St 154; T: (053) 656 2000; open 07:00-22:00.
La Villa: St. 155; T: (053) 730 151; open 12:00 to 14:00, 18:30 to 21:00.
Cafe Eden: St 1; T: (053) 731 525; open 07:30-around 21:00.
Choco l’Art Cafe: St 117; T: (010) 661 617; open 08:00-late.
Green Mango: St 155; T: (017) 315 450
Riverside Balcony Bar: St 1; Tues-Sun 16:00-23:00.
Here Be Dragons: Street 155; T: (089) 264 895
Libations Bar: St 2; T: (077) 531 562; open Tues-Sun 17:00-21:00.
Lotus Gallery: St 2.5; T: (092) 260 158

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