Gastrobar Botanico is one of those hidden gems that people feel so proud of finding when visiting a new city. It’s secluded off of street 29 down a narrow, winding pathway lined with tropical shrubs, bamboo and banana trees. Once you make it down the pathway you reach a garden oasis tucked away among the swanky hotels and apartments of Phnom Penh’s BKK 1 neighborhood. Completely open and outdoor in design, there are four concrete horseshoe seating areas under safari stye canvas tents that have retractable sides that roll down for particularly damp days in the rainy season. The bar and kitchen are at the far end, also housed in an open canvas tent adding to the jungle safari feel. All about is tropical greenery and combined with the individual tent seating, Botanico gives you a sense of intimacy and seclusion that is uncommon.
A+ on design and atmosphere, without a doubt.
Overall, the food is of a very high standard. However, unfortunately can be a tad hit or miss. The dishes range from truly outstanding to a bit mediocre to just not worth it. The menu has a range of conceptually creative and inspired tapas, sandwiches and burgers. The tapas in particular show the sort of inconsistency I just mentioned. The Potatas Bravas ($4) are simply a bowl of potato chunks covered with a chili “aioli” sauce that honestly just tastes like a flavorless cream with a sweet, slightly spicy tomato sauce. Don’t get me wrong, its perfectly edible and tastes fine, but maybe not worth the price. Similarly, the Mozzarella Fingers ($5.5) are perfectly fried mozzarella sticks (the only in PP that I’m aware of), however they’re pared with a “chilli-basil marmalade” that for some reason just misses the mark. Perhaps the topping is just a bit to sweet of a pairing with the saltiness of the fried mozzarella. In this case it may just be my personal taste preferences, but I’m confident that they could come up with a better, equally creative, sauce to pair them with. On a brighter note, the Salmon Croquettes ($5.5), served with a mild tartare sauce, are outstanding. They perfectly balance the delicate savoriness of the salmon with the light tanginess of the tartare sauce. Simply delicious.
The main courses fare a bit better consistency wise. Of the sandwiches, the Chicken Breast Milanesa ($7) is the obvious standout, tender chicken breast, melted gouda, crispy bacon and tartare sauce panini pressed between ciabatta bread. Botanico also has some of Phnom Penh’s best (and definitely most innovative) burgers. The American Beef Burger ($8) is not something you’d find in your average local burger joint in the States, but it is tasty nonetheless. Beef, cheddar cheese, bacon, bbq sauce and, if you choose, a fried egg. I have a thing for gooey fried eggs on sandwiches (an acquired taste admittedly) so this could just be me, but I love it. However, the Spanish Beef Chorizo Burger ($8) really did not measure up. Served as 3 small sliders, the buns were too dense, the meat was overcooked and dry and there wasn’t enough of the aioli or roasted red pepper to make up for either of those deficiencies. Unfortunately, the best part were the crispy potato fries it was served with. Considering the very high price tag (for Cambodia) this was a huge disappointment. On the other hand though, the Mexican Red Beans Burger ($6.5) is possibly the best veggie burger in the city, hands down. Initially when I first got it I thought it had been overcooked and burnt. However, the red bean falafel patty was merely perfectly crisped on all sides, giving it a little extra crunch that makes all the difference. Add guacamole, pico de gallo and jalapenos and it is as satisfying as any meat based burger. On the other hand, although all the salads are quite good, they not particularly memorable (compared to their other dishes). But if you wanted a light dinner, I’d go for the Chunky Avocado Salad ($6) which comes with an avocado cream and banana chips.
Botanico also serves a unique breakfast menu as well. The Perico ($6) is my favorite. It consists of scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, capsicum and melted gouda and is served with a side of Spanish arepitas (small cornbread rounds). The mini croissants with smoked salmon are quite good as well, though the pancakes are just mediocre.
On another note, Botanico boasts some really exceptional cocktails (all $4.5). Their red and white sangrias do the classic justice and the basil, cilantro and ginger based Tepui Mojito is the perfect refreshment for a hot Cambodian day. The Copa Pimm’s entails gin, lime, orange, cucumber and herbs and has a surprising hit to it. Lastly, the Lemongrass + Chilli Mary, a Southeast Asian twist on the classic Bloody Mary, is one of my favorites. Although purists may take offense at the fusion, it packs a hell of a punch and the lemongrass adds a subtle herbal flavor that to me is irresistible However, once again, sometimes consistency can be a problem in the drinks department as well. Usually they are phenomenal, but I have been a few nights where there was way too much lime dumped in the sangria and it seems the bartender accidentally dropped a whole tablespoon of chili into the Bloody Mary and I barely got through half of it. These nights though also seemed to coincide with the only sub-par food experiences (see chorizo burger disaster above) I’ve had at Botanico, so this might be indicative of there being new staff… or the regular staff having a terribly off night. Its hard to tell.
In general though, Botanico is well worth a stop. The staff is attentive and well trained and the small group of young women who usually wait tables are especially lovely. They also have really good internet so I sometimes like to go to there to stretch out on the cushions and work for an afternoon over the weekend. In a lot of respects the sublime atmosphere makes up for any shortcomings and I think if they can refine their menu a bit Botanico will join the ranks of Phnom Penh’s best fine dining.
#9b, Street 29, between Sihanouk Blvd. and St. 294, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
*** All photos provided by Gastrobar Botanico’s Facebook page