In search of sashimi

Trying to find a well-cut piece of maguro sashimi can be a task in Phnom Penh, not just because of the global shortage that has sent tuna prices through the roof, but because Japanese restaurants in the capital now number almost 20.

Many cater to expensive tastes, but not all. Ko Ko Ro on Sihanouk Boulevard is a cheaper option and has some good dishes, but mainly draws in customers by cult of personality, its owner offering Sudoku puzzles and eccentric charm.

Even atop the new Paragon mall on Street 214 at Aiko restaurant, one can now order a passable bowl of katsu-don—a foreigner’s favorite of fried pork cutlet in egg sauce over rice. The sushi, though, is barely recognizable as such, with rice mashed into angular bricks of oshizushi and rice-heavy rolls the size of hockey pucks.

But from the “Ira­shaimase!” welcome upon arrival to the careful, straight-backed bow from the waist as customers leave filled to the gills with raw fish, Ohan offers the best deal overall for a decent Japanese dinner in Phnom Penh—at $22 a head for all you can eat.

With its entrance tucked away in the parking lot of Phnom Penh Center, in-between Build Bright University and the Lucky Seven restaurant where students congregate after class, Ohan is patronized by people who know how to find it.

Phnom Penh’s is the third Ohan outlet opened by owner Tatsuhiko Itano, who has two branches in Ho Chi Minh City and is planning a fourth in Hanoi. All of the fresh fish is flown in on ice from Japan via Vietnam twice a week, so chef Eric Lim—a Singaporean who studied under Japanese chefs before coming to Phnom Penh—recommends coming on Tuesday or Friday nights for the freshest selection.

And while the buffet option doesn’t include everything in Ohan’s vast menu, it definitely offers more than any normal human being could consume in a meal.

Raw whitefish, cuttlefish, salmon and tuna arrive by the plateful. Other familiar staples like miso soup, vegetable tempura and sukiyaki soup, made with US beef, are all included, as well as chicken and shrimp grilled or fried, salads and more.

The buffet even includes a drink to wash the meal down: draft beer or sake, which they serve cold or hot, despite the fact that atsukan—sake of the scalding variety—is traditionally only made with the cheapest of brands for warmth in the depth of Japanese winter.

Toshio Fujita, a new chief Ohan chef in Ho Chi Minh City, was in Phnom Penh in February to prepare a new menu of what he called “Ja­pan­ese fusion foods,” though this failed to quite live up to the haute cuisine pro­mise that the label suggests. Rather, the new additions are mostly common Japanese versions of foreign foods, such as the oft-mocked but strangely appealing hamburger sans bun with a savory-sweet sauce. Though these dishes may be true to what people are eating in Japan these days, they don’t exactly represent great innovations.

Rather, it is the basic qualities of Japanese dining that made it famous and keep customers coming back to Ohan: impeccable service and the freshest ingredients available simply prepared, without undue pomp or ornamentation.

 

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