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.