14 September 2016

At Som Saa, East Meets East London

I never managed to visit Som Saa in its original location in Climpson's Arch near London Fields in Hackney, but it was hard to ignore the widespread acclaim the restaurant, which specialises in regional Thai dishes and cocktails, attracted. Earlier this year, they moved to a permanent location on Commercial Street in Spitalfields — a short walk from Liverpool Street station. Som Saa has clearly survived the transition — more than survived, in fact, and it recently made the top ten of Time Out's top 100 London restaurants, an impressive feat for a restaurant that has been open less than six months.

The only trouble is that most of Som Saa's tables are reserved for walk-ins, which can mean a long wait at peak times. The wait itself isn't really a problem if you aren't in a hurry as there is a gorgeous, well-stocked bar whose cocktails will keep you happy until a table becomes available. There are also a few booths that can be booked for parties of four, five and six people, and by happy coincidence, when looking for a place for an early supper for my family on Monday, they had a reservation available for four people at 6 pm. As it turned out, the restaurant wasn't too busy at 6 pm, so we would probably have been fine without a reservation; by the time we left, however, a not insubstantial queue had formed.

The restaurant itself is in a lovingly converted former fabric warehouse. The first room houses the bar, a few high tables and several booths; the kitchen and some additional tables are in the larger back room. The d├ęcor is minimalist: rustic wooden tables and booths, sleek pendant lighting and tasteful foliage.

I had heard good things about the cocktails and I wasn't disappointed. I had the Muay Thai Kick (£9), which combines gin, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaf, basil seeds and lime. It was fruity and delicious, sharp and sweet, the basil seeds adding some nice texture. I also tried some of my brother's Krahang Old Fashioned (smoked bourbon, bitters, mandarin peel and palm sugar), which was smooth and intense. Later on, intrigued by its listing on the menu, I ordered a popcorn iced tea (£3), which was literally that: iced tea with popcorn stacked on the ice. It was a little random but a surprisingly fun soft drink.

Deciding what to eat was trickier because although the staff recommend ordering four to five dishes per two people, I wanted to try pretty much everything on the menu. Between four of us we ordered eight dishes from various sections of the menu, which encompasses soups, salads, woks, grills and curries. Along with jasmine and sticky rice (£2.50 per person), this was more than enough food — we could have dropped one of the dishes, I think, but it was nice to try so many different foods and, to be fair, we came close to finishing everything.

Although we shared everything, each of us selected two dishes from the menu. I went for one of the wok dishes, the pad dtok guichai (stir-fried chicken with chrysanthemum leaves, garlic chives and yellow beans; £8.50), and a salad: the som tam thai (green papaya with snake beans, dried shrimp, peanuts and cherry tomato; £9). The former was one of my favourite dishes of the night — an interesting variation on the ubiquitous pad thai — and the salad, while very spicy, was a great take on the dish.

We also sampled two of the curries on the menu: the gaeng hung lay (a Burmese-style curry with pork belly; £12.50) and the gaeng panang neua kem (braised salted beef and Thai basil; £13.50). The meat in both curries was beautifully cooked — the braised beef had that melt-in-the-mouth quality and the flavours of the gaeng hung lay came together perfectly. Another winner was the gai yaang (£7), grilled chicken leg with tamarind dipping sauce, which was juicy and moreish. I didn't try the pad pak (stir-fried vegetables; £8) as it was laced with mushrooms but my family enjoyed it. Naturally, we didn't have room for pudding, but as I mentioned in my review of the other Thai restaurant I visited recently, I'm not a huge fan of most Asian desserts.

Even early on a Monday evening, Som Saa was buzzing and had a cool but relaxed vibe. The staff were friendly and attentive and we had a wonderful evening. In fact, the cocktails were impressive enough that I would go for a drink even if I wasn't planning to eat or couldn't get a table! The hype is real: get thee to Commercial Street pronto.

Som Saa. 43a Commercial Street, London, E1 6BD (Tube: Liverpool Street or Aldgate East). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

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