Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Restaurant review: Som Saa, London Fields

Sitting on small communal tables, throughout our meal we had often shared brief conversations with the couple sitting next to us, mostly in the way of “oh I wish we’d ordered…”, “can we squeeze our plate in that gap” and “sorry, that’s our bottle of wine”. All spirited and well humoured excursions. Midway through our meal things changed. “Oh! What’s that dessert you’re eating? It looks great…” they asked. At that moment, I happened to be crunching on the remnants of a deep-fried seabass head. The crispy cheeks and gill covers had been devoured, and I was contemplating going in for the eye. I couldn’t help but smile a little as their faces dropped, horrified at this revelation. And that was that from them for the rest of the meal. 

I wouldn't normally excuse such Hannibalistic dining habits, but it is exactly what Som Saa brings out in you. You want to dredge every single crumb of flavour from every single plate. With their year-long residency at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields within a hair of completion, Katie and I hopped across the park on a clear chilly evening last week for one final meal. Situated no more than a 5 minute jaunt from our front door, it has been the perfect option for that last-minute, spontaneous date night; the no-booking system often allowing us to slip in with little or no wait. On nights when heaving and faced with a flustered hostess and long list, we were able to soften our bad luck and simply try again another night. Thankfully last week we spied a couple of vacant seats in the glow of the warm yellow light and jumped. 

The space is a magnificent example of Hackney-esque ingenuity, carving a working roastery for the excellent Climpson and Sons coffee during the day before stoking up the outdoor (literally a shipping container) kitchen for Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie to work their magic in the evenings. As you sit there surrounded by coffee sacks, roasters and polished extractors you are interrupted mid-conversation every 10 minutes by the rumble of trains above. It’s creative and charming, especially considering that such a place exists hidden in an otherwise ramshackle, dark East London street. Yet somehow such a concept has sparked waves of talent; before Oliver and Dobbie it was Tomos Parry, who went on to run hugely celebrated Kitty Fishers in Mayfair. During their residency, Som Saa have found their own unbelievable success, and in their bid to open their first permanent site, managed to raise £700,000 through crowdfunding in just four days. 

Our food last week was as good, if not better than on previous encounters. Crunchy school prawns started things off, before tender cuttlefish, a truly gorgeous off-menu curry of sweet, autumnal gourd, papaya salad and the dish that started the piece, the deep-fried seabass. Each dish came bathed in its own unique and fragrant flavourings, and each was utterly delicious. The philosophy behind all of the food was so refreshing; instead of falling back on tired and diluted Westernised classics, the menu is more of a reference point, an introduction to something new. I had never heard of any of the dishes before, and I have never eaten Thai food like that in London, or indeed outside of a few trips to Thailand. The whole balance of flavourings was judged to perfection, fireball hot yet tempered and addictive. It was sadistically satisfying to feel your lips burn and swell with heat whilst shovelling such brilliant food. Endless sticky rice was on hand for fire blanket duty, and for the new (and strangely wonderful) sensation of squeezing the warm grains out of each bag. 

During the savoury courses your tastebuds were brought to such a peak of acute sensitivity, that it was almost a joke when desserts were handed out. Suddenly everything was flooded with soft, ever-comforting grilled banana, palm sugar ice cream and sesame. It was like that moment a fairground waltzer finally grinds to a halt. I could have almost melted off my chair (stool). 

Food aside, the front of house, lead by Tom George, seemed to effortlessly run what must be a difficult room of randomly seated parties, and the throng of people waiting to jump on the next ledge, gap or corner. They all seemed genuinely excited about what was to come. 

It will be sad to see Som Saa leave the Arch. From a purely selfish perspective, it sounds like I’ll have to travel a little further east in search of their food when they re-emerge next year. But also in the way that the food, venue and atmosphere fused together so well. I really hope that they adopt some of these stripped-back, communal surroundings in their next venture. It will be very interesting to see how Leandro Carreira gets on with his residency, he certainly has big shoes to fill. And with Portuguese food on the bill, Climpson’s Arch yet again revolves into an exciting new chapter.       

Friday, 9 October 2015

Autumn fish stew with red mullet, squid, radicchio, borlotti beans and bottarga

Fish are as seasonal in our waters as the distinct harvesting seasons for vegetables, and the traditional shooting seasons for game. Temperature and weather conditions play a big part, and the variation in catches reflects this. Late spring and summer sees wild sea trout and salmon migrating back down their spawning rivers from sea, and it is the beginning of turbot season proper. Christmastime sees peak molluscs; juicy, heavy mussels and sweet clams. The autumn is bountiful, and almost everything is in great condition as the waters finally start to cool after months of heat. The most visual sign of this is the tide of beautiful red mullet that start appearing, scale perfect and ridged as darts. In the shops we sell two different sizes of these fine fish; the small ‘fritture’, perfect for frying whole as a wonderful evening snack with a glass of dry wine. But the larger ones are worth seeking out, for crispy-skinned fillets and the soft, part-oily flesh that yields that unique shellfish flavour. 

In the year and a half that I have been a fishmonger, this is the first time that I’ve managed to take advantage of this wonderful produce. My colleagues swoon as soon as they start appearing on the ice slabs, for many they are an outright favourite. Such special fish deserve a special dish, and this time around I made sure I was prepared.
A good fish stew recipe is worth its weight in gold. It can be quickly rustled up in order to create a special and crowd-pleasing meal when suddenly faced with many mouths. It is perfect when the chills start and the nights creep in, providing a deep satisfaction, and a radiator-like effect on the body. My version takes the last of the summer tomato harvest combined with soft borlotti beans and roasted radicchio leaves. I heard recently that we are losing our taste for bitter leaves and was saddened. They are an acquired taste for sure, but tempered with clever cooking and flavour pairings they are delightful.
A small packet of bottarga accompanied me back from Rome, and I’ve been grating little bits of it here and there whenever possible. I love it simply with braised greens, lemon and olive oil a la The River CafĂ©, but it also really makes clams, shellfish and in this case, red mullet really sing. It acts as a fantastic enhancer, boosting other ingredients whist imparting its own subtle and delicious flavour.
Serves 2
1 red mullet, about 400g in weight. Filleted and pin-boned. 
1 medium squid, cleaned, scored and cut into strips
For the stew base:
The bones from the red mullet 
3 shallots, finely sliced 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped 
1 tbsp sweet smoked paprika 
1 tsp fennel seeds 
1 tsp dried oregano 
1 star anise 
1 tsp dried chilli 
1 good pinch of saffron 
4-6 ripe tomatoes, chopped 
1 glass of dry white wine 
750ml good chicken stock 
400g tinned or fresh borlotti beans, drained and rinsed if using the former
For the roasted radicchio:
1 small radicchio, trimmed and quartered 

To finish:
A handful of basil leaves 
A good glug of extra virgin olive oil 
A generous grating of bottarga

First start off by making the stew. Heat a good glug of olive oil in a large, high-sided skillet or frying pan. When a medium temperature, add the mullet bones and fry until golden on all sides. Tip in the shallot, garlic and fennel along with a good pinch of seasoning, and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables have softened. Stir in the dried chilli, fennel seeds, paprika, oregano, star anise and saffron and continue to fry for a further 5 minutes, until the flavours have been released. Add the tomatoes and combine well with a wooden spoon. Cook until soft and starting to dissolve and create a sauce, another 10 minutes or so. Raise the heat and pour in the wine, allowing it to boil and reduce by half. Finally pour in the chicken stock. Bring the broth to a boil, then simmer gently for about 45 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and thickened a little. Strain into a smaller saucepan, and discard the now spent flavourings. 

Bring the strained stew base back to a simmer and pour in the borlotti beans. Cook until the beans have softened and absorbed some of the flavour, about 10-15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200⁰C.
Arrange the radicchio quarters onto a baking tray and coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in the hot oven for 10 minutes, or until the edges start to turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and slice the leaves into small, rough pieces.
Pour a generous amount of oil into a large, non-stick frying pan and bring to a high heat. When really hot, add the squid and a good pinch of seasoning. Fry quickly for 1-2 minutes on each side, until golden and crispy. Transfer to a plate lined with kitchen paper to drain. Keep warm. 

Give the frying pan a quick wipe clean and replace the oil. Bring back to a medium-high heat. Season the mullet fillets well and place skin-side down in the pan. Fry for 3 minutes, and use a tablespoon to baste the flesh-sides with hot oil at the same time.
To serve, spoon a good amount of the stew and beans into shallow bowls. Scatter the radicchio and squid over the top, and pop a fillet of red mullet in the middle. Arrange basil leaves around the sides and drizzle over some good olive oil. Finish by grating over the bottarga and serve.