Som Saa, London Fields

in Restaurants by

Som Saa tried its hardest to stop me from eating there. When I first tried going back in May it turned out to be closed for a private party, and ended up at the disappointing (and expensive) Rita’s instead. After a few months of sulking I decided to try again. This time, Som Saa turned an “hour or hour and a half” wait into two and a half hours.

That’s annoying, but not quite as bad as it sounds – Som Saa has a fairly roomy outdoor drinking area with benches, a decent duo of beers (Camden Pilsner and Five Points IPA), and the two cocktails we had were quite tasty despite being served in flimsy plastic party glasses. Our bar snack of fried fermented pork and shredded papaya with lime and chilli was truly delicious – fresh and warming, and so good that we drank the lime-chilli-fish sauce juice left over when nobody else was looking.

But the food, once we were eventually seated, was variable. The grilled chicken leg was entirely ordinary, no different to a chicken leg you’d have at a home barbecue, but the jaew dipping sauce – similar to the stuff we’d gobbled down earlier – made for a hot, citrusy dip for the (unlimited) sticky rice we’d ordered.

Som tam, isaan style, with grilled chicken leg in the background

I had been craving som tam – a green papaya salad that is ubiquitous in Thailand – since lunchtime. Unfortunately, it was revolting. I’d opted for the ‘stronger flavoured’ isaan style that came with an overpoweringly strong fermented fish sauce called bplaa raa (‘rotten/moldy fish’), which dominated all the delicious fresh and spicy flavours I usually love with som tam.

According to this postbplaa raa ‘is to nam bplaa (fish sauce) what a fine French blue cheese, shot through with veins of mold, is to cream cheese.’ Perhaps it’s my fault for trying it, as standard ‘Bangkok style’ som tam was also on the menu, but I do wonder how anyone could enjoy it. It tasted like the smell of a fishing docks in the evening, after a slow day of trading.

Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry
Grilled tiger prawns with coconut curry

Barbecued prawns with coconut were pricey at £9.50 for four, but unlike most barbecued shellfish the cooking style complimented the meat instead of dominating it. Nam prik num – a sort of cold green chilli relish served with pork scratchings and raw sliced vegetables – was utterly pointless. The relish was virtually flavourless, a bit like a lime pickle without the lime. I’m still trying to figure out what in that made them think it was worth serving, let alone worth charging £8.50 for.

Nam prik num
Nam prik num

All this was slightly disappointing, until the sea bass. This gurning little fellow was not just the best dish I had at Som Saa but was among the best fish I’ve ever eaten. Sitting in a little pond of that lovely lime-chilli-fishy sauce, the sea bass was fried to crisp perfection without losing any of its moisture inside. We pulled it apart and mopped up its juices and the pile of coriander, mint and bits of roasted rice on top of it.

Deep fried sea bass with roasted rice powder

That unlimited sticky rice is a nice touch, because what this place does best is its sweet, fermented, spicy sauces, and sticky rice dipped into those sauces padded out fairly modest portions of meat.

Som Saa was slightly frustrating: waiting for restaurants is no terrible thing, since it means you can go spontaneously and it probably guarantees a more steady stream of customers than bookings does. I suspect Som Saa and other restaurants like it make some extra money from the alcohol it sells to people while they wait, which – if it cross-subsidises the food – is fine by me.

Certainly, Som Saa was not expensive – altogether (excluding drinks), our bill came to £52 for five dishes between two people, and both of us were stuffed (and we barely touched the fermented fish som tam). I’d like to say it’s worth the wait for the fish alone – and I may well go again on a quieter night just for that – but there were too many misses in Som Saa’s menu to justify waiting such a long time. Som Saa is a good restaurant, with flashes of excellence, but it is already so popular that it may never make those flashes the norm.

Score: One medal. (For an explanation of our scoring system, see here.)

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