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

Click to add a blog post for Som Saa @ Climpson's Arch on Zomato


- said...

that fish looks really grumpy

Chris Pople said...

OS: Understandable, really.

laura@howtocookgoodfood said...

I am in total agreement. I have never eaten better Thai food and am in awe of this place. Andy is our very own David Thompson.

Anonymous said...

Looks good. You have hit the nail with your head on restaurants. Our village/town has 6 crap take aways, 1 fish good or awful gamble fish and chip shop, 4 pubs all serving food ranging from bad to worse, one café/eatery that is not too bad but the owner moves back to France soon, 3 deli's (one does a nice homity pie and some nice cakes). All the coffee in our village is awful and scolding hot. Amazing as we are surrounded by amazing produce. That's why I cook at home. I'm going to try The Treby Arms (7 miles away) at some point, I will let you know.
Ha Exeter tomorrow Exploding Bakery for real coffee and cake, Pipers farm sausage roll for the journey. Then it's Streetfeast London.

Gavin said...

Looks proper good Chris. Have you been to The Begging Bowl? Any comparisons?

Unknown said...

Really like the food there and at the Smoking Goat. It seems Thai food is improving in London. Only thing that deters me from returning to Som Saa was having to eat outside in the freezing cold and waiting over an hour to eat. In that situation, the prices seemed quite expensive.
But I will brave it again one day.
You are also right about the revolution in London food not necessarily being reflected outside London. Marina O'Loughlin told me that people are always complaining that the Guardian doesn't review restaurants outside of London, but when she does, the stats are low. People are basically only interested in London restaurants.
I remember visiting my mate Jim the stoner in Manchester and what he thought was brilliant Indian food was to my mind, at best average and at worst inedible. The 'quality' Indian takeaway was the latter.
Some good food in York I've noticed. Very impressed with a Spanish place there, Ambiente, even though the pan con tomate was soggy and inauthentic.
I've also had some abysmal 'balti' curries on balti mile in Birmingham. I mean really really bad: chuck it in the bin bad.
I'm hungry for some som saa now.

Anonymous said...

Is the Heron still serving Isaan food in the basement? The food blogosphere seems to have abandoned it for the current wave of "hipster authentic" (there's an oxymoron) Thai restaurants.

Unknown said...

The Heron's food is not that great though.
Went to the begging bowl today, not bad but not as good as Som Saa or Smoking Goat, also it was rather expensive...£8.50p for a bowl of soup.

Anonymous said...

@MsMarmiteLover When were you last at The Heron? When I visited (granted about 2 years ago) the food was absolutely on point. Great laab and som tum, excellent (whole) fish, awesome isaan sausage and decent kor mu yang. On par with what I've had in Thailand. I'm sorry to hear if it's gone downhill.

I just find it somewhat ironic (if predictable) that after all the foodies bemoaning the lack of "authentic" Thai food in the UK, when it finally shows up it's only when the restaurant is run by Farang that it becomes popular. Same in the states with Andy Ricker et al.

Anonymous said...

@MsMarmiteLover Also, I checked the Begging Bowl (online) menu for your 8.50 bowl of soup.

The closest thing I could find was "Hot & sour soup of tiger prawns" on their lunch menu priced at 8.25. Their "Hot & sour soup of smoked trout & sorrel" on the dinner menu is 6.25. It seems logical to infer from this price differential that the key factor is the presence of tiger prawns rather than the dish being a "bowl of soup" as you suggest.

Top10sy said...

Its really looks awesome dish....

Carole Mason said...

Somsaa is fantastic - you lucky folks who live in London must give it a go. I have just written a cookbook "Mae's Ancient Thai Food" the recipes of Gobgaew Najpinij. She was a professor at Suan Dusit University in Bangkok and a food historian. She shared recipes with, advised and supported many famous chef's including David Thompson - some of her recipes are in his fabulous books, Thai Food and Thai Street Food. In fact he gives a tribute to her on the back of the book. Sadly she passed away last year but if she ate there I know she would highly approve.

Unfortuntely I think Ms Marmite is right - I wrote a food guide about Birmingham and I couldn't find a Thai restaurant that was great but i did unearth an amazing dessert maker.