Thursday, 30 July 2015
Som Saa, London Fields
For years, I thought I didn't like Thai food. Greasy spring rolls, rubbery chicken satays in a sickly orange sauce, soggy Pad Thai bulked out with a murky mix of frozen vegetables; at best it was boring, at worst that special kind of sweet, mushy blandness that speaks of a long time left in the freezer. And then I went to Thailand on holiday, and realised that I didn't dislike Thai food, I just disliked Thai food in the UK, which at the time (and until fairly recently) was about as close to the real thing as a Harvester is to the Hind's Head.
Why the discrepancy? The same old issues that held back food in this country for so long - lack of ambition, low expectations from the public in general, and the fact that so many considered eating out a wild extravagance held only for the most special occasions, forcing restaurants to eke through empty weekdays occasionally chipping stuff out of the freezer when needed, and hoping to shift enough Blue Nun on Friday night to make the whole enterprise worthwhile. In much of the country, this is still sadly the case - the demand just isn't there, and with very few notable exceptions, small town restaurants are pretty dire. Hell, even Liverpool struggles, and there's over two million people live there.
What any cuisine needs to be at its best, then, is an open-minded customer base, access to good fresh ingredients, and a restaurant that can make the numbers work. The problem that most Asian food, and Thai food specifically has, is that when you've had the best Pad Thai of your life from a back street in Chang Mai and it costs 40p, persuading the same people back in London that their equally tasty version is worth £10 is a bit of an ask. But if anyone can persuade London that good Thai food is worth shelling out a bit extra for, it's Som Saa.
That's not to say Som Saa is expensive; quite the opposite. It's actually incredibly good value compared to the dross trotted out in the name of Thai food in most of the capital (hang your head in shame, Thai Square) - perhaps too good value, and I'll come back to that later. There are some snacks for £3-4, various bits of grilled meats with dipping sauces for £6-7, and a couple of sharing plates that go up to £14. By anyone's standards, this is a keenly priced restaurant. What makes it an extraordinary restaurant is that the dishes produced are innovative and unusual at any price point; this is Thai food like you've never seen before, full of colour and vibrancy, authentic where it counts but making exciting use of premium British ingredients alongside Thai staples. It is, in short, the best Thai restaurant I've ever been to outside Thailand.
This is jan naem, a fermented pork snack that they apparently make by secreting bits of it away in the hottest corners of the railway arch the restaurant currently calls its home. It's sharp and fresh, quite unlike any other pork dish I've ever tasted, the acidity turning the generous slabs of pig into something approaching pickled but actually way more complex and rewarding than that.
Beef in betel leaf is something you may have seen before at one of the (many decent) Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road, and they were every bit as good here, with that familiar soft beef filling and topped with crunchy peanuts. The chilli/vinegar dip was not only familiar in flavour to the kind of thing you get in SE Asia but the pink bowl it came in was a lovely little nod to streetfood tableware as well.
This is one of the "snacks", pla bon dtaeng mor, strips of watermelon with an interesting smoked fish powder and crunchy fried shallots. Like the jan naem, I've never had anything like it before although it did remind me slightly of the very clever chilli watermelon salad at Chick'n'Sours - that same addictive mix of fresh fruit and Scoville heat that simultaneously burns and soothes.
Som tam was arguably one of the more familiar Thai dishes on the menu at Som Saa, but was done with such style that it still managed to feel completely new. Fresh and vibrant, and another great use of that "roadside pastel" tableware. I'm convinced there is no cuisine that does salads better than Thai food - the care and attention given to the play of textures and chilli in the vegetarian dishes is never less than equal that of the protein.
Excuse my attempt at an arty Instagram-style shot - that on the right is gai yang grilled chicken leg with dipping sauce. I find the different styles of butchery in world cuisine fascinating. Usually in Western cuisine a chicken will be neatly jointed into drumstick, thigh and wing, and you work your portion control around that. In Carribbean (jerk) and SE Asian food though, a sharp cleaver cuts the chicken up into equal sizes regardless of the part of the animal - it's quicker and easier to prepare, and produces bits easier for dipping.
The star dish was always likely to be this seabass nam dtok pla thort, because I can't think of a single meal that wouldn't be improved by an entire deep-fried fish to share. Isn't it magnificent? And it tasted just as good as it looked, the rich, herby dressing hitting all of those amazing Thai food pleasure points - sweet, hot, sour, crunch.
There was a pork belly curry, thick and velvety, that I forgot to take a picture of, and a very interesting smoked fish relish with dipping vegetables that I did. But by this point I imagine you'll need no further evidence that Som Saa is a restaurant at the very top of its tree. It's Thai food that successfully demonstrates everything that makes this cuisine so special at some incredibly generous prices.
So where do we go from here? Because as they'll tell you themselves, Som Saa is only in this space temporarily and needs to move to a situation, and setting that will go the distance. Shared tables and a streetfood vibe are fine when you're finding your feet and building an audience, but Andy Oliver's astonishing food deserves more - a room and an atmosphere that reflect the days of backbreaking prep that goes into each dish (days of pickling, crushing, chopping and fermenting, if rumours are to be believed; they work all week but are only open to the public Thursday-Sunday). So bizarrely for a restaurant blogger and happy customer, I think Som Saa v2 should charge more. Not tablecloths and silver service but we need to demonstrate that people are willing to pay that bit extra when the results more than justify it. With a bit of extra spend per head, this stunningly talented bunch of people can really go places. The future is bright.
We were spotted and had a couple of extra dishes brought out for free, but I think the bill per head would have been about £25-£30 otherwise including a bottle of lovely Picpoul