‘Som Saa:. a variety of citrus fruit used in old-style Thai cookery’
When David Thompson packed his bags for Thailand, closing Nahm in the Halkin Hotel in December 2012, he left citing the fact that he was having to “compromise Nahm’s cooking because of lack of availability of ingredients”: it was a body blow for authentic Thai cusine in the UK. Thompson has long been regarded as the ‘daddy’ of Thai food, an Aussie ‘farang’ whose connection with the food goes as far as him having immersed himself in the culture, learnt to speak fluent Thai, and raiding old recipes written down years ago. Many of these are in his big pink tome Thai Food, a book I bought immediately on release in 2002. There are indeed a bewildering number of ingredients needed for many of the dishes – combined with my own cooking inadequacies, I’ve tackled one dish. However, it’s also a fascinating read in its own right, a distillation of the history of Thai cooking and its role in society.
I first met Andy Oliver in 101 Thai Kitchen in Hammersmith, a few months before Nahm closed, just after he had returned from a six month stint at Bo.lan, regarded as one of the best restaurants in Bangkok. Prior to that he had spent two and a half years at Nahm, following on from an appearance in the final of Masterchef in 2009, via stages at Moro, Nobu, Bocca di Lupo, The Modern Pantry and Maze. He later worked on Vanduke, a Thai street food truck which was part of Alan Yau’s Bangkok café concept Naamyaa (with David Thompson consulting), which Andy went on to help launch. From there he went to lauded Thai spot The Begging Bowl in Peckham, to work for his friend and fellow Thompson alumni, Jane Alty. A few pop-ups at Bar Story while working here led to meeting business partner and front of house Tom George, and on to an extended residency at Climpson’s Arch in Hackney in 2014 – the success of this led to a Crowdfunding that rattled up to and over the required amount for their restaurant in a matter of days. Quitting his job in management with BT years ago now looked like a very good decision indeed.
The kitchen team has Thai cookery nous by the pestle and mortar load, with Mark Dobbie (ex-Pok Pok), and chefs like John Chantarasak, both of whom were there during the Climpson’s stint. Curry pastes are pounded on-site, they make their own coconut cream when possible (coconuts in the UK don’t always yield the best results), and a couple of other ‘special moves’ with sourcing raises the standard further (their fish sauce is David Thompson’s, a more balanced, rounded condiment then the usual).
Since the first Thai restaurant arrived in the UK (Bangkok on Bute Street, South Kensington), and the rash of Thai kitchens in pubs (The Churchill Arms in Notting Hill was the trailblazer in 1998), there’s a renewed bounce which in recent years has included independents like The Begging Bowl, The Heron, Janetira and Smoking Goat, as well as a clutch of smaller chains. Som Saa’s arrival has been keenly anticipated.
A permanent home, no more cooking outside a windswept Hackney arch, a smart fit-out: and they’re off…
‘Panang’ curry of braised salted beef cheeks and Thai basil – gaeng panang neua kem (£14.50) - Singing with the richness and depth of house made coconut cream, the peanuts boiled in coconut milk before being pounded into a paste, this has all the cosseting qualities of a massaman curry (so often overly sweet and tame in the UK), pucks of beef which have been salted in fish sauce and braised in coconut cream, falling apart in silky hunks. Eye wideningly, maddeningly, ‘order another immediately’ good.
Burmese style curry of pork belly and shoulder, with pickled garlic and fresh ginger – gaeng hung lay (£12.50) - A version of this curry made an airing at Climpson’s Arch, and is every bit as satisfying. The heft of pork belly and sweet rendered fat, chunks of shoulder, immersed in a rich, gloriously murky sauce with kaffir lime leaves, nubs of whole garlic, a twang of cloves. Another belter.
Isaan style hot and sour soup of duck and its offal – dtom saep ped (£10.50) - Tom Yum soup with nobs on. Gnarly chunks of duck on the bone, a bit of heart here, some liver there, bobbing about in a cleansing sour broth with lemongrass, red chilli and kaffir lime leaves.
Thai style grilled chicken leg with tamarind dipping sauce – gai yang (£6.50) - Another staple from the residency in the arch, skin crisped and carrying the char of the grill. Chicken is not a boring order here.
Grilled pork neck with a ‘nahm jim’ dressing – mu yang (£6.50) - It’s that perky nahm jim sauce that does a lot of the work here, hopping with lime juice and showing off the Thai alchemy of balancing sour/spicy/salty/sweet – slurping down the remains of the dipping sauce says something about its success.
Bangkok style green papaya salad with snake beans, dried shrimp, peanuts, cherry tomatoes – som tam thai (£8.50) - Fat chewy dried shrimps in the mix take this above many plodding papaya salads in the UK, much meatier than the norm. The northern Thai style ‘Isaan’ som tam is also offered, for those willing to brave ferocious scuds of chilli and the pungent kick of fermented fish sauce: frighteningly spicy, as it should be.
Arriving at 5pm is a good idea, name on the list, seat at the bar and a snack – the sour funk of their own fermented Thai sausage, wrapped in cabbage with peanuts and unforgiving chillies, a can of Beer Laos, a fine start. Wines feature the wine on tap ‘key keg’ system from O.W. Loeb: the Friulano and Refosco from Vini Stucco are excellent. A star wine is Keller’s ‘Von der Fels’ Riesling, and has the luscious cojones to deal with all the spice and sour/sweet combos you can throw at it. We try a couple of stir fried dishes, one with clams and turmeric, another of chicken and long aubergines and yellow beans, as well as a Laos style banana leaf parcel of fish, Thai basil and kaffir lime leaf: all enjoyable, with those curry dishes reverberating loudest.
We were there at the closing party for Nahm, the first time I can ever remember a restaurant having a party to mark their closure. Looking back, it was a form of mourning I suppose, a jovial wake to wave goodbye to Thompson and his uncompromising approach to authentic Thai cooking.
Som Saa has taken up some of that slack, displaying a great deal of the integrity and thrust of where Nahm’s cooking left off – it already feels like one of the most thrilling restaurants in town.
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