Dining by Design: The Tiger's Eye
Two Saturdays ago, three girlfriends and I went for dinner at The Tiger’s Eye. This was the last time we would all dine there together, for within a week, The Tigers Eye would close for business.
On my way home from dinner, I pondered all the things that made The Tiger’s Eye, in my opinion, so special. The food was divine, that much was indisputable. But there was more to it than that. Anthony Bourdain had already articulated the notion of the intangible elements that influence one’s dining experience in his book, A Cook's Tour:
“I knew already that the best meal the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I know how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at the dinner table. [...] There are other forces at work in the enjoyment of a truly great meal.”
Two of these “other forces”, are ambiance and environment. Essential to creating these are attentive service and good company. But of course, there is also, interior design. And so, as The Tiger’s Eye prepared to close its glass front door for good, I reflected on the design elements that contributed to its unique convergence of food and space, and to many truly great meals at this establishment.
A relatively small space, the design of this restaurant was simple really. With 16 tables, brown banquette seats, a mirror, the occasional throw pillow in grey or yellow, and mid-century-modern-ish chairs, it was uncluttered and relaxed. My favourite place to sit was at the tables by the window. During the day natural light would spill in, and you could watch life go by on Sothearos. In the evenings, I liked the way light refracted on the glass.
Wood was everywhere: on the walls, on the tables, the bar, the stools, the bathroom doors, even on the menus! But the knowledge that this was reclaimed wood added a layer of honesty and character to a material already imbued with familiarity and natural warmth.
The overhead lamps emitted a soft orangey glow. This glow, reflected on the rims of wine glasses, absorbed by knotted table tops, and accompanied by smoked butter, spiced tomato jam and home-baked bread, made the Tiger's Eye the only restaurant in Phnom Penh I referred to as "cozy" - an adjective I would also use to describe the perfect dinner setting for a meal shared with friends. But beyond this coziness, was something I found more intriguing... contrast.
Contrast, as a design principle, is a powerful way to excite the senses, especially when it comes to texture. It allows us to focus on things more easily, and appreciate the distinction between one surface or colour, and the next. With so much wood going on at every turn, contrast was certainly not the first thing that came to mind when you looked at the interiors, but I believe the magic of The Tiger's Eye dining experience occurred somewhere between its “hygge” factor, and the juxtaposition of its understated interior design with its sophisticated culinary feats - the latter being the contrast I was referring to.
Unlike the unrefined tabletops and slightly uneven, hand-made ceramic plates on which they were served, head chef's Timothy Bruyn's dishes were displays of pure poise and perfection; delicate, artful, precise. The flavours too, were complex and enlightening. Visually, the sensibility of Timothy’s dishes, and that of the textures and surfaces that supported and surrounded them, were at odds. And yet, they complimented each other, elevated one another by way of their seemingly contrasting aesthetic values.
Had this cuisine been served in a completely different context (plated on perfectly even surfaces, on pristine white table cloths, with an assortment of gleaming silverware - in an environment that mirrored Timothy's meticulous attention to detail) the ambiance would have been completely different too; it would have lost its “edge”.
As I wax lyrical about the value of contrast in the overall experience of The Tiger’s Eye, it is important to mention that to know Timothy (as all The Tiger's Eye patrons did) was to know of his genuine passion for food, flavour, and natural ingredients. The paired back interior design of Timothy's restaurant reflected his authenticity and direct nature. And so, where there was aesthetic contrast, there was also, intrinsic harmony - two very powerful “forces" at play, simultaneously feeding our senses and our subconscious.
As we sat by the window last Saturday, anyone driving by would have seen four women laughing, swilling wine, devouring prawn sous vide and beef tartare on rustic tables, under a warm light. And as we did so, I wondered where we would go, once The Tiger's Eye was gone, for such culinary calibre and such cleverly crafted ambience. Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with an answer. The Tiger's Eye will surely be missed by many for the singular, memorable dining experience it offered to us all.