It is a striking sign of globalisation that an Englishman can eat South American cuisine in the heart of South East Asia. Yet here in Phnom Penh, you can dine out at The Latin Quarter on a mixture of dishes from all corners of Latin America, prepared by Khmer chefs (albeit under the watchful eye of the restaurant’s Uruguayan manager Diego). The colonial setting, and a heady pick’n’mix of Latin music styles streaming out of the PA system, transport you thousands of miles away, to the far barrios of Buenos Aires, Bogota, Montevideo and Havana.
The atmosphere is one of laid back elegance, the syncopated rhythms of Latin music tempting you through wrought iron gates into a stone flagged courtyard painted in light but earthy yellows and creams. The tables and chairs are a relaxed hodge-podge; some marble, some dark wood, some square, some rectangular, some hexagonal, some plain, some decorated, each one refined in its own way, but combined in a manner evocative of the lazy, haphazard chic of South America. The feel is gracefully chilled out, a place to relax with friends over a good bottle of wine.
The menu is pared back to a small focused choice of tapas, with a regularly changing a la carte menu of specials listed on the board behind the bar, eschewing the multipage menu overkill that so often leaves diners with a huge range of poorly thought out, poorly executed dishes to choose from.
We start with a Pumpkin, Onion and Coconut Soup ($3) and Mexican Prawn Ceviche (large $6, small $3.50). The soup is thick and creamy, the spoon leaving deep imprints in the rich, not overly sweet potage, with unsalted croutons to add a welcome crunch to the dish. The Ceviche is a signature dish of coastal South America, cold seafood in a cool, clear, citrusy sauce with a chilli kick at the end.
Once again, the crunch of the tortilla adds a welcome texture to the herby pickle of the Ceviche.
The blackout that hits as we finish our starters, leaving us initially illuminated only by the faint glow from surrounding streetlights and by a few candles emanating enticingly from a wooden cabinet filled with imported wines, does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the steady stream of clients enjoying their meals. The staff set out an array of candles with an unfussy, frankly rather unlatin, efficiency and proceedings continue unabated.
Full lighting resumes swiftly and the mains arrive in the form of a Duck Breast with Caramelised Onions in a Port Reduction ($9.50) and a John Dory in a Mixed Seafood Suquet ($10.,50). The Seafood Suquet, a typically Catalan broth, has that sharp, almost fruity bite, paired well with the full, meaty texture of fresh, juicy John Dory. This is washed down pleasantly with a glass of Yauquen Malbec ($25 per bottle), a full bodied Argentinian red, which is as heady as the rhythms of Cumbia music thrumming along in the background.
The Duck Breast is perfectly tender and succulent intermingling seductively with the
caramelised onion, which has an almost toffee sweetness, offset by a subtle, slow burn kick of chilli.
Indeed, subtlety of taste is the key characteristic of Latin Quarter’s food, with careful combinations of flavour slowly unfolding, like a well told story in your mouth.
For me the only culinary low-point of the evening was the Crema Catalana ($3.50). Although the top is perfectly caramelized and pleasantly brittle in texture, it is followed by a grainy, mealy custard, symptomatic of overhasty preparation.
This was more than made up for by a simply divine Pancake with Dulce de Leche and Ice Cream ($4.50), which has a mouth coating, sugar rush to die for, burst of Dulce de Leche, a caramelised milk spread typical of Argentina and Uruguay, combined with a light springy pancake and fresh cool ice cream. Absolute heaven.
Overall, to find a venue that has both atmosphere and quality food is a rare pleasure in Phnom Penh and I for one will definitely be back for more.