London’s East End has long had a bit of spice about it. The coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Grocers, founded in 1345, features nine cloves and a camel (the main mode of transport for the great “spice trains” of the age), while in the 20th century, the area surrounding Brick Lane established itself as the hub of London’s Bangladeshi community. Cheap and cheerful curry houses proliferated – to the joy of Banglatown locals and impecunious students alike.
Som Saa, previously a Thai food pop-up in London Fields, is now on the firmer ground of Commercial Street, where chef/proprietors Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie have created a trailblazing restaurant. Both worked for the celebrated David Thompson at Nahm, so Som Saa has an impeccable bloodline; it is a rather beautiful space, too, in a bare brick, industrial way.
This is not a run-of-the-mill British Thai menu – absent are the dreaded breaded nuggets with vaguely spicy ketchup (“unidentified frying objects”, as Keith Floyd used to call them) and sweet, insipid, coconut-based curries with the kick of a lame mule, like a Muzak version of heavy metal. Som Saa specialises in the fiery food of Isaan, in northeastern Thailand, and each flavour – salt, sour, sweet, pungent, hot – is turned up to 11.
A case in point is som tam Thai, featuring green papaya, snake beans, tomatoes – but also fierce chillies and stinky fish sauce. Hot and sour duck soup (dtom saep ped) is splendidly visceral, with pieces of heart and liver lurking in its depths; less spicy, but just as enticing, is a whole deep-fried sea bass, strewn with Isaan herbs and roasted rice powder (all pictured).
Som Saa is an assault course for the palate, as authentically Thai as anywhere I have eaten, including Bangkok. But be warned: bookings are only accepted for four or more people, so go with a group, which, in any case, is the best way to enjoy the menu.
Gunpowder, a no-bookings Indian restaurant just around the corner, might better be described as “modern London Indian”; like Mayfair’s Gymkhana, the menu steers a breezy path through India’s greatest hits and the ambience is equally easy-going.
The best dishes were a little “bomb” of rasam – the thin, sour, palate-cleansing soup from southern India – topped with a crisp, hollow puri; a spicy venison doughnut fried in sev (vermicelli); and a wild rabbit pulao, joyously aromatic, with perfectly cooked rice. Like Som Saa, Gunpowder is a modern thoroughbred with a very ancient pedigree.