Some say it’s the best Thai in London. All we know is that we call it bloody brilliant.
It’s very easy to become jaded and disillusioned when covering London’s restaurants. From the devised-by-committee initiatives to the cynical tourist trap theme parks, from overwrought concepts and dull chains to the atrocious bandwagon jumpers, there’s no shortage of mediocre and down right bad restaurants in the capital. Every now and again though, a restaurant comes along that makes you feel glad to be alive. Som Saa, a former Hackney pop-up that’s now settled down in the Spitalfields border lands between the City and Whitechapel, is one such restaurant.
Som Saa does have its faults. Unless you happen to be part of a group of four, five or six people, it doesn’t take reservations – prepare to queue or cool your heels at the bar. And the service, while charming and friendly, can sometimes be sluggish – especially when the place is full and frantic. But these problems are all forgotten when faced with the glories and wonders of the menu.
First things first
It’s worth bearing in mind that much of the joy in Som Saa’s dishes comes not from the provenance of the meat or fish, but from the artistry in the preparation and execution of the sauces and seasonings. A good example is the pork neck starter. The dense and lightly chewy yet lean pork is by no means bad, but it would be nothing without its sour, zesty and umami fish sauce.
The same principle extends to the pork curry. While the strands of pork shoulder were dense and tender, the pork belly was unremarkable. That didn’t matter though give the exemplary curry sauce – its beguiling musky sweetness was enlivened even further by crisp punchy ginger.
The eggplant used in the aubergine salad was fleshy and smoky, topped with so-so strands of diced, caramelised prawns or prawn floss. It’s good but it’s no baba ghanoush, at least not when taken on its own. It’s the dressing that’s the star here – an electrifying medley of sharp and bright herbs with a cumulative spicy heat. Although only moderately hot, the soothing effect of the mildly runny egg was still welcome. If aubergine had tasted this good when I was younger, then I wouldn’t have foolishly forsaken it for so long.
Chilled, cold brewed jasmine tea proved to be a fitting accompaniment to many of the smoky and spicy dishes at Som Saa across all of my visits. Despite its almost fully transparent water-like appearance, its pronounced floral smokiness enhanced and complimented many of the dishes here.
[I didn’t bother taking a photo of the tea as it really does look like a glass of water]
The palm sugar ice cream was uncomfortably cold in places, but it’s worth bearing with as its syrupy sugary sweetness meshed well with the firm, slightly fibrous, tangy and delicately sweet banana.
Going back for seconds
If you do prop up the bar while waiting for a table, then it’s worth snacking on the pork sausage. Coarse and meaty with a sour tang and a mildly fruity sweetness, it’s delectable on its own or wrapped in cabbage and taken with crunchy peanuts and a small but seismically hot chilli.
Lightly crispy and chewy bits of pork belly were covered in a reddish brown rub. It was a surprisingly muted affair though, with a mild nuttiness at most and even that may have been placebo.
A far better curry was the one based around braised beef cheeks. The tender and sinewy chunks of beef were made whole by a richly coconutty and herby sweet sauce. The beef may have been cheap cuts, but the exquisite sauce elevated this dish into one fit for royalty.
Both the pork and beef curries were quite mild, leaving it to the son tam isaan to scorch my mouth with its spicy heat. Crisp vegetables came doused in a surprisingly thick and reddy brown fish sauce that was powerfully hot when it wasn’t lip pursingly sour and tangy. If there was ever a salad that could level cities and shrivel gonads, then it’s this one (and that’s a good thing).
Squidgy poached jackfruit imparted its musky, earthy and lightly syrupy sweetness to the puddle of creamy coconut milk that it was served in. The bonding of fruit and milk was cemented by grilled rice, its softness and caramel-like sweetness adding another layer of both texture and flavour.
A bar snack of prawns served on betel leaf would’ve been disappointing due to the underwhelming crustacean, if not for the boldly flavoured garnish. Sweet, crispy shallots combined with a big slap of sour, zingy, tangy and bitter herbs. It blows away the cobwebs and then some.
A similar, but not identical, mix of herbs coursed through a salad of minced pork and otherwise underwhelming prawns. The effect of the herbs was magnified by a white turmeric infused fish sauce that sizzled, smouldered and electrified my mouth. Astonishing.
Moderately buttery and lightly smoky slices of trout were joyful, whether taken with fresh, powerfully scented sprigs of dill and mint or without. Neither the herbs nor the lightly smoky, chipotle-esque, harissa-like spice paste really suited the trout, but for once that didn’t really matter. When all the individual elements were so well-crafted in their own right, it was of little consequence that they didn’t really mesh together.
You don’t order the jungle curry for the unremarkable flecks of meaty white fish bobbing about in the thin green sauce. You order it for the sauce itself and the big fiery French kiss in the gullet it gives you, courtesy of bitter, sharp, crisp and citrusy herbs including holy basil and lemongrass. Along with crisp spherical mini Thai aubergines, it’s potent enough to make your eyes water and beads of sweat to dribble down from your brow. It’s a glorious concoction that puts every other jungle curry I’ve ever had in London to shame.
A dessert smorgasbord of lychees, mango slices, jackfruit pieces, papaya chunks, grapefruit segments and pitaya/dragonfruit slices was faultlessly fresh and delicately sweet and juicy.
A bar snack of chicken larb might look like distinctly un-poultry like, but these little parcels of chicken were meaty, umami and a little salty too – characteristics enhanced by the sour dipping sauce on the side.
Baron Greenback just about holds on to his status as one of my dining companions despite his unquestioning fondness for bland, unremarkable chicken dishes. Som Saa may have finally persuaded him to raise his standards with its grilled chicken leg. From the taut, slippery and glossy skin to the moist, fresh and just-cooked flesh, the entire leg had a sweet and umami character. This was complimented and bolstered by the sweet and smoky tamarind-based dipping sauce. Chicken rarely tastes this good.
Almost any chicken dish following the grilled chicken leg was bound to be anti-climactic, so the subtle and understated stir fried chicken with chrysanthemum leaves is best savoured before the chicken leg rather than after it. Tender and moreish chook chunks were joined by morning glory-style greens resplendent with garlic and ginger.
A garlicky moreish soup was dotted with bobbing bits of squidgy, milky tofu. Mushrooms added a touch of gentle earthiness that somehow didn’t seep into this soup’s clean aftertaste. A class act.
The Burmese pork curry was just as good as it was before. The whole deep-fried sea bass, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as accomplished. The white chunks of fish were firm and meaty, but the punchy, crisp and bright herbs weren’t quite enough to offset the stodgy crunch of the batter and skin.
The poached jackfruit dessert was just as good as it was before, as was the palm sugar ice cream with grilled banana.
Five Go To Dinner But Without Lashings of Ginger Beer
Although all three of Som Saa’s regular curries are based around red meat and fish, the restaurant does have a vegetarian curry which changes more or less daily. The Euro Hedgie and I had the opportunity to sample a mild yellow curry which was very creamy, thanks to its coconut base, with tender potatoes and butternut squash providing the bulk. Although far from bad, it was somewhat one-dimensional and undemanding compared to the meat curries.
Oddly listed under the soups section of the menu, the chilli, ginger and shrimp paste relish had a dry, prickly heat which I found very agreeable, but it failed to impress The Euro Hedgie who wanted a far more potent, salty, umami punch. We both agreed that the odd selection of crisp and refreshing crudites and crunchy pork scratchings were odd and ultimately unsuccessful accompaniments for the relish.
Oddly cabbage-like, the banana flower salad was nonetheless a winner with the taut, slippery leaves joined by lean, supple and meaty shreds of chicken. A tart and sour dressing bound meat and leaves together into a satisfying whole.
A soup of duck and duck offal wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Thin and opaque, it was bursting with the bold, bright flavour of lemongrass. Unfortunately, the meagre bits of duck and duck offal, while tender, were disappointingly tame in taste. As the Euro Hedgie pointed out, a heartier meat reduction might not have been very Thai, but it would’ve better fulfilled the earthy, funky promise of duck offal.
A garlicky selection of competently stir-fried greens wasn’t very exciting, but it was still notable for what it wasn’t rather than what it was. It wasn’t stodgy, heavy, oily nor did it consist of cheap filler cabbage. These are all common pitfalls for plates of stir fried vegetables. This may be a modest achievement, but it’s nothing to be sneezed at.
Palm sugar ice cream with grilled banana was just as good as it was before. Ultimately though, my favourite dessert at Som Saa has to be the poached jackfruit. It was even good enough to seriously impress The Euro Hedgie, a notorious dessert snob. As he put it, it’s that rare dessert that doesn’t rely on spiralling levels of sugar or poor-quality chocolate for its appeal. Instead, it was elegantly well-crafted and luxuriously layered.
Given that the entire population of the Home Counties appears to have decamped to Thailand at one point or another, either for gap years or holidays, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for a critical mass of Thai restaurants worthy of the name to emerge in London. Even the so-so dishes here are still better than what often passes for ‘good’ dishes at other Thai restaurants. Som Saa’s cooking isn’t for the dull and lily-livered who blanche at foods that are ‘too rich’ or ‘too spicy’ though. Overflowing with herbs, spices, panache and verve, Som Saa is electrifyingly terrific.
What to order: Burmese-style pork curry; Beef cheek curry; Fermented pork sausage; Jungle curry; All the salads; All the soups; Grilled chicken leg; All the desserts
What to avoid: Dry red pork curry
Name: Som Saa
Address: 43A Commercial Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6BD
Phone: 020 7324 7790
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday 17.00-23.30. Saturday 17.00-midnight. Sunday 17.00-22.30. Closed bank holidays.
Reservations: only accepted for groups of four to six people – otherwise first come, first seated.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-45 approx.