The Empire Bar and Restaurant opened recently without fanfare. Business partners Niall Crotty and Bruce Douglas have set out to create a comfortable chilled out space, drawing inspiration from the Manchester bar scene Niall experienced in the noughties (remember that decade?). They seem to have achieved that, both in the ambiance of the venue and its diverse clientele.
Once past the glass frontage, the aesthetic is severe. Battleship grey walls (save one, at the rear, painted purple) are completely unadorned of decoration. The beautiful glass lighting fixtures introduce shades of Amethyst and Tiffany Blue to this neutral colour scheme. It works. The interior design is generally well-proportioned, although restaurateurs please note that in a rectangular space rectangular tables work better than round ones. There’s an amply-sized lounge bar in natural wood contrasting the paint job.
What’s to drink? Try the eponymous signature cocktail ($3). ‘The Empire’ comprises Bacardi, Triple Sec, Vodka and sugar cane juice, served with Lime and a chunky sugar cane stick. Another one please. Beer starts at $1.25 ($4 jug), shots are $2, and house wine is $3.50 a glass ($12 bottle).
The Empire isn’t a destination dining venue; it’s too intimate and convivial. But Chef Veasna Kay is capable of delivering top-notch Khmer grub. Salad ‘Veasna’, his signature dish, is a sour and spicy creation, without meat, dressed in fish sauce, garlic and chilli. Lovely. The BBQ Aubergine with Pork is also a standout. The grilled eggplant (actually a nightshade berry, not a vegetable) adds a great smoky flavor to the dish. Vegetable Amok was pronounced delicious by someone known to me. The menu changes frequently to reflect the best of market produce, but other dishes regularly featured include Fried Pork with Basil, Lok Lak and Tom Yam Soup. There’s a small range of Western-style dishes, including the essential plate of chips.
Why do people make a place one of their ‘locals’? The food? Often. The booze? Occasionally (that’s certainly one of reasons I visit Studio 182). The crowd? Yes, that’s the reason we come. Here The Empire plays their trump card – it’s an easy-going place to visit, reflecting the personalities of the owners. Niall and Bruce have a wide and varied social network in the capital, including some of its intellectual and cultural movers and shakers. This reviewer merely swells a scene or two. On a recent visit I bumped into Ramon Stoppelenburg, the new owner of The Flicks; someone who has partaken of popcorn with Geri Halliwell (but haven’t half the men on the planet shared a great deal more with the slapper*?). Throw in the handsome Khmer friends of the local partners, Huy Sun ('Dara') and Veasna – most possessing cheekbones to die for - and you have a febrile social scene. Don’t be surprised if you get caught up in a party.
The Empire is a welcome addition to the north Phnom Penh social scene, and there’s more to come when the business becomes established. There are plans for a mini-me 'The Flicks' movie theatre on the Mezzanine floor, and theme evenings including, I would not doubt, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. The mind boggles as to what the man on the street will think of it.
* the reviewer does not use this term in a derogatory manner