By NAOMI LINDT
Published: December 24, 2010
How did an English chef come to open a Japanese bistro in Cambodia?
It actually began on a late night in Shanghai in March 2009, when the chef, Caspar von Hofmannsthal, happened upon an izakaya, a Japanese gastropub, hidden behind an unmarked door.
“It was packed, loud and smoky, but the food was so simple and well-executed,” said Mr. von Hofmannsthal, 28, who previously managed high-end London restaurants like Quo Vadis.
So when the Londoner moved to Phnom Penh two months later, he set out to recreate the izakaya experience, but with a twist.
Mr. von Hofmannsthal opened Yumi in November 2009, turning a garage into a sleek, ambient bistro with recessed lighting, entered through a leafy terrace edged in funky fortified vines.
“We let the ingredients speak for themselves,” Mr. von Hofmannsthal said of the recipes that he and his head chef, Ross Erikson, conceive in Yumi’s open kitchen.
Using locally grown, seasonal products — including whatever’s freshest at the market — Yumi delivers small, artful, sauce-heavy plates of pleasure that are meant to be shared. During a summer visit, these included refreshingly light tempura squid with a ponzu dip spiced up with chilies and garlic, and niku dango, skewered Japanese beef meatballs, dressed in fragrant black pepper from the seaside town of Kampot.
Then, there are the ribs. Sublime, supremely addictive, melt-off-the-bone-and-into-your-mouth ribs: slow cooked, finished off on the yakitori grill, and slathered in katsu sauce.
“People call ahead to ensure we haven’t run out of them,” Mr. von Hofmannsthal said.
Vegetables shone as well. Eggplant wheels were braised to a seductive softness in mirin and soy sauce. A green bean and lotus root salad, in a frothy sesame paste emulsion, delicately balanced tender, woody bamboo root, served with crispy green beans, pumpkinseeds and disks of lotus.
For dessert, the young chef can’t help but return to his childhood. Banoffee, or banana and toffee pie, is a staple of many English families; Yumi’s “deconstructed version” features homemade ice cream accompanied by a Cambodian miniature banana, drizzled with a toffee recipe that the von Hofmannsthals have passed down for generations.
Yumi, 29a Street 288; (855) 92-163-903; theyumi.com. An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about $30 (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia).