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A Double Star: Italian and Vietnamese Food at Stella's

By: Roswell Thomas Posted: April-02-2011 in
The patio at Stella's; picture courtesy Celine Hour
Roswell Thomas

“Stella’s” is announced like any run of the mill Phnom Penh eatery, heralded by the garish glow of an “ANGKOR” sign on a dusty side street (street 75, just north of where it Ts into Raffles hotel). Going inside, however, you will be congratulated on finding this place by yourself and anyone you are trying to impress with dinner: warm light falls on cool tiles in the outside seating area, dotted with potted palms and set back from the street by a lush yard. Inside seating has a warm, chic feel – you’re surrounded by vibrant red walls and artistic metal forms that bristle with bottles of fine wine.

Run by French-Vietnamese woman with help from her French-Cambodian husband (a wine importer, hence all the choice bottles), Stella’s menu is divided into “cuisine asiatique” and “cuisine western.” The prices are reasonable at first glance, and outrageously cheap once you see how good the food is – some entrees asiatiques are only $3, and the majority of other entrees across both menus and cultures are in the $5-$11 range, with premium offerings (steaks etc) getting more expensive.

The “cusisine asiatique” is world class, and it’s no wonder – proprietress Celine Hour grew up in her family’s “tres tres chic” Vietnamese restaurant, Kim Anh, which Frommer’s calls “one of the best addresses in Paris for the savory, spicy cuisine of its former colony.” Stella’s rouleaux imperiaux – flaky, savory rolls stuffed with crab and served with dipping sauce and greens – are well worth trying, and the stuffed crab is highly recommended (it was, unfortunately, out of stock at time of review; if you make it to Mrs. Hour’s family’s restaurant in Paris, though, Frommer’s says you should “most definitely” try their stuffed crabs, which go for around 20 or 30 euros. Based on her other offerings, it’s a safe bet the crab doesn’t fall far from the tree in Mrs. Hour's Phnom Penh restaurant).

But please, don’t let the stunning cuisine asiatique distract you from the pizza, which is just as inspired, if not more so. The crust is flaky but crisp, curling up at the edges; the sauce is made with fresh tomatoes and garlanded with oregano and other spices, and the cheese (Mr. Hour gets it from friends in the import/export community, along with his steaks) is cooked perfectly, starting to brown but still gooey. The Neapolitan pizza, with ham and olives, is the favorite of the restaurant’s five-year-old namesake, although the menu changes as Mr. Hour’s gourmet suppliers deliver him different goods (at the time of this review, he was on the hunt for anchovies).

A small pizza ($5) is perfect for a kid; a medium ($7) is recommend for a grownup to tackle alone, although you might as well pay the extra dollar for a large ($8): it was big enough for your hungry reviewer and his dinner companion, but it is almost impossible to walk away from eating any amount of pizza at Stella without wanting a lot more.

Why pizza? You see, while she was growing up with the exquisite Vietnamese food of her family’s restaurant in Paris, Mrs. Hour fell in love with Italian cuisine. This love was not merely the affinity that fills seats in Italian restaurants, nor the Eat-Pray Love that helps divorcees in Rome gain a couple pounds and feel better about themselves. No, this was, to paraphrase Dante, the love that moves pizza and other Italian dishes; the kind of love through which someone can understand, produce, and even teach – using cuisine – the eloquence and passion of the people that produced the Renaissance and, more recently, Pavarotti.

Lucky for us, Mrs. Hour further fell in love with her Cambodian husband while they were studying in Paris together. Eventually, this man brought her back to Phnom Penh, along with a bunch of really good French wine.

The name of their five-year-old daughter, and now their two-year-old restaurant, is Stella - "you know, like a star," Mrs. Hour explains. As with all the best Italian restaurants, family is a big part of this endeavor. "I get my inspirations from my family and express that through the food,” says Mrs. Hour. And what beautiful expressions they are.

Stella’s is open daily from 7am to 10pm; #55 Street 75 (just behind Raffles hotel). Delivery is available: (099 574188)

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