By a stroke of luck, Som Saa had Saturday night availability for two, at a reasonable hour – 7.45pm – just two days before booking. I say “luck” as Som Saa is a Thai restaurant in demand. What started life as a pop-up in Climpson Arch’s and at the Begging Bowl in Peckham, it now has a permenant home on Union Street, which like all its manifestations has been very well reviewed. That is totally unsurprising given its founders. Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver cut their teeth with Thai food oracle David Thompson and Oliver later worked in a renowned Bangkok restaurant. Their partner front of house is Tom George, with experience at Hawksmoor and with the Polpo Group, which have together written the textbook on what modern, relaxed restaurant service should look like. Like the founders, the staff, are all friendly, knowledgeable and efficient.
Located in a former fabrics warehouse just south of Spitalfields Market, the interiors are moody and exotic. The front bar is bright and airy, whilst out back is a more dimly lit and “cool” dining area, with a factory-like vibe in keeping with Som Saa’s pop-up heritage. The semi-open kitchen that can be seen through the wooden panels in the dining area leaves you eager to get your orders going in and your plates coming out. And even if you sit in the brighter front area, as my companion and I did on our visit, the smells wafting out of the kitchen and the sight of spices and chillis along the bar leave your mouth-watering.
Alongside other bold Thai eateries – Smoking Goat, Kiln, the Begging Bowl and Farang – Som Saa has led the way in celebrating Thai cooking beyond the usual green curry and plate of pad thai. The reviews talk of mind-blowing cooking – literally and metaphorically – inspired by Thailand’s north-eastern provinces. Heavily influenced by street foods from the region, that means nothing is toned down: everything is 110% full-on.
With a whole menu dedicated to vegetarian and vegan food, I wasn’t without choice. First up we ordered what was probably the star of the evening: Yum Samun Phrai Thort (£9). Though the plate resembled more of an incredibly green crispy salad, these were in fact herby samphire fritters with a very generous scattering of cashew nuts, chilli and spring onions. Dressed in a chilli-lime dressing, the whole dish came together in a “salad-like” way, though a totally addictive one given the lingering sunflower oil finish of the fried fritters! A fiery bash of flavours and textures, salt and smoke.
Next arrived the Som Tam Jay, the green papaya salad so ubiquitous in Thailand. This was crunchy fresh, peanutty and fiery hot – perhaps overwhelmingly so. For me, the salad was a touch too spicy, though the chunky slabs of cucumber and summery sweet cherry tomatoes provided a touch of coolness to sooth. Whilst I finished half the plate feeling like I’d been punched in the face, I kept returning for one more slither of papaya.
Finally, we shared the Gaeng Khiao Waan Jay, because no Thai meal is complete without a green curry. But Som Saa’s take on this classic dish is a far step away from your usual green curry. Featuring green banana, kajorn flowers and spongy tofu, the bowl also featured pea aubergine – a very small pea-resembling aubergine – which was a total revelation for me. Probably the most effective element of this curry, though, is the sauce which lends the whole bowl a soothing sweet depth. Made from their own coconut cream, its oozing with ethereal wafts of Thai basil, lemongrass and coriander.
Som Saa’s reputation as one of London’s top regional Thai restaurants is totally deserved. Every dish is bursting with spices and herbs. This is truly bold food that will wake your tastebuds totally up. A welcome step away from the more diluted flavours of your local Thai eatery, your palette is in for a ride. Hold tight!
Som Saa, 43A Commercial St, London E1 6BD