From Hackney pop-up to Spitalfields staple, the wildly popular Som Saa is bringing authentic Thai food to the east end. And to Instagram. Neil Gerrard reports
It has become a truism to say that if you really want to generate a buzz around your restaurant, you should first appear as a pop-up.
Whether it is an abandoned garage somewhere in deepest east London or a simple street food market, getting the food right and creating a ready-made army of fans helps populate the newly permanent site, as well as dulling any cutting words from critics forced to queue outside with everyone else.
In the case of Som Saa though, the owners have managed to spark both an enormous amount of goodwill, thanks to their Climpson’s Arch pop-up in Hackney, which resulted in a £700,000 crowdfunding campaign, and some truly glowing reviews.
Giles Coren described the food at Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Tom George’s restaurant in his piece for The Times as “incredibly good and incredibly spicy”, while Grace Dent went further in the London Evening Standard and dubbed it “one of the key restaurant openings of 2016”.
Which perhaps goes some way to account for why Som Saa was heaving when The Caterer visited the new restaurant in a former fabric warehouse in London’s Spitalfields, not long after its April opening.
Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie
If there was some hype before, then it was justified. Chefs Dobbie and Oliver are the real deal, having met when they were working at London’s Michelin-starred Nahm in 2009 under David Thompson. Oliver then went on to work at Bo.Lan in Bangkok and the Begging Bowl in Peckham, while Dobbie became head chef of Pok Pok in New York.
Som Saa is named after one of their favourite ingredients, a type of citrus fruit used in old-style Thai cookery, which is found in several of the dishes they serve up.
“Our aim is to cook Thai food as you would find it in Thailand,” says Dobbie. “We do lots of regional dishes and also draw on some older-style recipes and techniques, too. Working at Nahm really opened our eyes to how diverse the cuisine can be, but we’ve also learned from travelling and eating a lot in Thailand and from other restaurants we have worked at.”
Nahm dtok pla thort
One of the best-known (and possibly most Instagrammed) dishes on offer, having been retained from the pop-up’s menu, is the nahm dtok pla thort, or whole deep-fried seabass with roasted rice and isaan herbs (£16). But at the moment Oliver reckons it is the gaeng panang neua kem (‘panang’ curry of braised salted beef cheeks and Thai basil, £13.50) that is proving to be the most popular.
“It’s an interesting dish, but it is also very accessible,” he explains. “It’s rich, a little salty and slightly sweet and it’s made using curry paste and fresh coconut cream that we make each day in-house.”
The pair also relish the chance to put rarer dishes on show. “We always have a nam prik (chilli relish) or lon (coconut cream-based relish) on the menu. They are dishes that don’t tend to be found much outside Thailand, but we really enjoy introducing people to them,” says Oliver. “At the moment we have a lon on the menu called lon khrua, which is made from smoked fish, roasted coconut and a kind of curry paste. You eat it with various sour fruits, crunchy vegetables and sprigs of herbs.”
Gaeng gari jay
Of course, offering such unusual culinary creations is not necessarily easy, especially when it comes to sourcing, as Oliver explains.
“It’s a constant challenge, but if motivated then you can find really interesting ingredients in London. We use a mixture of Thai, Vietnamese and Indian suppliers to get exotic stuff, plus we use spices and good palm sugar straight from Bangkok. Sourcing our namesake – som saa – is very tricky because they’re not easy to find, even in Thailand, so we call in favours from friends coming back from Bangkok to stuff them in their luggage!”
The 13 chefs in the brigade are producing around 1,200 covers a week, although that is set to increase as the team introduces lunch and brunch as well. That’s probably enough to keep them busy for the time being, which is why there are no further openings on the cards yet. “Further down the line, who knows,” says Dobbie. “We’ve got lots of ideas, but we are keeping them on ice for now.”
Certainly though, the permanent restaurant has been a step-change for the team. “The residency at Climpson’s Arch was a lot of fun and the perfect stepping stone for us, but having a permanent site has already allowed us to expand our offer. It is great to start thinking more long-term about the food and experience and what we want to achieve.” That buzz won’t be dissipating any time soon.
Gaeng baa pla
From the menu
- Mu yaang – grilled pork neck with a ‘nahm jim’ dressing £6.50
- Pla yaang – coconut and pandanus smoked trout served with pounded chilli relish and herbs £6.50
- Lon khrua – coconut and smoked fish relish with pickled morning glory, fruit and vegetables £9
- Pad pak – stir-fried English and Asian vegetables £8
- Pad prik king – dry red curry of crispy pork with kaffir lime leaf and snake beans £9.50
- Yum makeua yao – grilled aubergine salad with egg and prawn floss £8.50
- Gaeng baa pla – jungle curry with daily fish, Thai aubergines, holy basil and wild ginger £13
43A Commercial Street, London E1 6BD
Gaeng juet het