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February 2017

Som Saa, Spitalfields

in Restaurants by

Back in my very first Straight Up London review I worried that Som Saa, in its past iteration as a pop-up in London Fields, might never reach the greatness that a few of its dishes suggested it might be capable of.

Now, Som Saa has set up permanent shop in Spitalfields. Three visits later, I feel qualified to say it’s done more than just ditch the crap dishes: it’s probably now my favourite restaurant in London.

I don’t usually care for cocktails, but since you’ll usually be waiting for a while at Som Saa (we had a 90-minute wait for our table on a Friday night, which we could leave after putting our name down for, but they advise coming back fifteen minutes or so before your table’s ready), and the beer is relatively pricey, you might be tempted. In my experience the stand out choice is the “Dragon’s Milk”, made with sticky rice rum and condensed milk and quite unlike any other cocktail I’ve ever had. Others aren’t bad, but aren’t remarkable.

The menu recommends that you order four or five dishes between two people, and they vary pretty substantially in size. First up for us was the grilled pork neck with “shrimp paste spiked dipping sauce” (£8). The slices of pork were pink and juicy in the middle, shot through with a vein of fat, and with a crunchy exterior. It’s hard to share food like this: the dipping sauce was an explosion of savoury and sour flavours of shrimp and lime juice that gave an acidic edge to the meatiness of the pork.

Som Tam “Bangkok style”, the green papaya salad that’s basically ubiquitous in Thailand, was fiery hot, crunchy fresh and peanutty. We mopped up its sauce with a side of sticky rice. This was the least adventurous dish we tried – after the highly adventurous “isaan style” som tam that reminded me of rotting fish, it was enjoyable to try a dish I’ve had dozens of times done to near-perfection.

Funnily enough, a dish of pork, green beans and morning glory (£9.5) stir fried in a meat broth was one of my favourites. The pork had thick and crunchy crackling, but the broth itself was really impressively meaty and a little liquoricey, lightly flavoured in a way that juxtaposed nicely against the rest of the meal’s punch-you-in-the-face flavours.

The highlight, always, is the deep fried whole seabass. This is served in a similar sauce to the pork neck’s dipping sauce, and it’s a joy to break off bits of crunchy-skinned, moist fish to mop up this liquid with. The gigantic mound of coriander and roasted rice powder adds to the flavour and gives bitefuls an explosively fresh taste. At £16.50 for a whole sea bass, I think for the money this is probably the best dish you can get anywhere in London at the moment.

Green curry with salted goat (£14) was, like the som tam, an example of a classic dish done to perfection – not sweet or coconutty like some green curries I’m used to, but a thick and rich stew of Thai spices and flavours with big, fatty hunks of goat meat and jelly bean-sized Thai aubergines that popped with a bitterness that gave a new dimension to the curry’s flavour.

I’ve now tried nearly everything on the menu at Som Saa, and there are very few misfires, even for a place where a misfire is still a cut above anything most Thai restaurants can manage. Everything about Som Saa is a pleasure: the room is big and open, with fun 20th Century Thai pop art on the walls, and the staff are friendly and chatty. At £95 for two including drinks and service, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.

Only Camberwell’s Silk Road also keeps me coming back again and again for the same things. It’s the place I’d take someone if I wanted to show them the food I love, and there’s nothing better I can say about it than that.

Rating: Three medals.

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