Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Som Saa, Hackney

Have you ever enjoyed a restaurant so much that you revisited the night after? 

There are so many restaurants in London, especially new ones opening up all the time, that it would seem like madness to do so, but I did do it. One Friday night, we rocked up bang on 6pm to Som Saa in Hackney. It's situated in an archway underneath London Fields train station. If you ever went to Burnt Enz, sadly now relocated to Singapore, you might recognise the space as it's the same one, in the Climpson Arch. They're in residence there, headed up by Andy Oliver and Tom George. Andy's pedigree is solid, having trained at Nahm in Bangkok and The Begging Bowl in Peckham. I knew I was already enamoured with his food from this brief stint in 2013.

They are in the arch temporarily, until they find themselves a permanent home. It's always busy; it was reviewed well, and Thai BBQ is so-hot-right-now. On visit number 1 we put our names down and took to some outside benches with snacks and drinks, nibbling on cashews spiked with chilli and lime. This prawn with samphire on a betel leaf is intended to be eaten whole and it was absolutely gorgeous. It's one of those things that slap you round the face and demand that you pay attention. The perfume of the lemongrass, the citrus lime, balanced with fish sauce, a hint of lime leaf - masterful.

After a brief wait (which wasn't really a wait, given that we were seated, with snacks and drinks. There are worse ways to queue) we were seated. The first to arrive was the coal-roasted aubergine, garnished with a soft boiled duck egg, resplendent with herbs. Smoky, silky and sweet, sticky rice we have unlimited amounts of was perfect for mopping up the sauce. 

Lon Kapi is smoked mackerel and raw vegetables served with a dip of shrimp paste and coconut cream. I knew I had to have this, as I also know the lengths they go to to make their own coconut cream by hand. It is not in vain. Leaves of bitter chicory contrast wonderfully with the slightly sweet dip. I particularly enjoyed the sour / sweet chunks of green mango too. 

As for larger dishes, the sea bass is deep fried whole and served looking panicked. It's covered in herbs, so you have to rootle around a bit for the morsels of flesh. Roasted rice is pounded into a powder and sprinkled on top, for a bit of crunch. 

We also tried a Isaan-style som tam; at Som Saa, both Isaan and Bangkok styles are offered. The Isaan is not for the faint-hearted; this particular style of Thai cooking, from the North East of the country, is known for being spiciest, and features sour and fishy flavours heavily. Indeed, the som tum is made with fermented crabs. It sure was funky. It was so spicy I glanced over to a man eating it and his head was thrown back, he was slightly perspiring, and he was gulping the air. 

I came back the following evening with 4 friends. We ordered everything from the menu with glee. 

This time we had the Bangkok som tam, which comes with crispy pork. Crispy pork makes everything better so there was a clear winner between the two options. 

All the other dishes I enjoyed again, though none of us were particularly fond of this grilled oyster mushroom on chicory. I think it was the dill, it jarred somewhat. 

The grilled onglet with herbs, lettuce and roasted red chilli paste made a great little parcel to pop in the mouth. Onglet is known for for being particularly flavoursome as it comes from the diaphragm - as such it has to be cooked very rare so that it remains tender. I would have paid a little more for a fattier, juicier cut like rib-eye. 

Soup was the clear, soothing broth with mushrooms bobbing about in it. Our table heaved with plates as elbows knocked into shoulders as we attempted to dish the soup out. It was reviving and comforting. Some remarked that it was bland, but I thought that really was the point of it. 

Thai meals are all about balance. Some dishes are meant to be on the sour side, some spicy, some mild, and you're also supposed to have dishes that lean to a sweeter angle. Our palates were becoming slightly fatigued - a couple of the salads were quite similar - and then this baby turned up. It's a Northern-style pork belly curry with pickled garlic and ginger. Northern-style in this sense meant no coconut milk, just rich, sweet, anise-scented sauce that the fork-tender pork belly cooked in. I loved the ginger on top; it cuts through that richness and livens it up. I loved this dish very much. In fact, I loved Som Saa very much.

Both times at Som Saa I spent around £25 on food, while the bill for drinks can go up depending on how long you're waiting. And how many of these you drink. The Sang Som hangover was strong. 

I have a recipe for Tom Yum soup, amongst other Thai gems in my book, Chinatown Kitchen - in case you're out of reach of Hackney, or just prefer cooking at home. 

Arch 374 Helmsley Place,
Hackney, London E8 3SB

No Reservations

Summer Opening Times

Dinner:        6pm-late Thurs - Sun
                        (last orders 1030pm)
Lunch:          12-3pm Sat / Sun only

Garden:        6pm-late Thurs / Fri
                        12-3pm & 5pm-late Sat / Sun                  
                        weather and kitchen permitting


Danny Kingston said...

I do love me a som tam and I totally get the man sweating and gasping for air, that is normally my reaction.

Might nip over there soon then.

Charlene F said...

Nom, nom, nom :-) x