Som Saa: From pop-up to permanent

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Hot talent: l-r Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Tom George
Hot talent: l-r Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Tom George

Related tags: Thai cuisine

Som Saa blew people away at its temporary location in London Fields. Now its permanent site, just opened in Shoreditch, promises to be the hottest restaurant of 2016.

Success at Som Saa will be measured in covers and cash but also coconuts. Founders Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie and Tom George expect to crack as many as 350 a week at their bracingly authentic new Thai restaurant in Shoreditch.

Preparing them is a time-consuming job. The flesh must by prised from the husk and grated, put in hot water to soften, blended into a fine pulp, forced through a fine strainer and finally left to separate into coconut milk and coconut cream. At the moment, the kitchen team is using an adapted cider press but will soon take delivery of a Thai-made machine that will partlyautomate the latter stages of the process.

The presence of the coconut in the day-to-day routine of the kitchen is significant. Space and resources were limited at Som Saa’s residency at Hackney’s Climpson’s Arch so the menu majored on the rustic cooking of north and north-east Thailand.

“Broadly speaking, the coconut is more connected to the cooking of central and southern Thailand,” says Oliver, who jointly heads the kitchen with Dobbie. “Now we have more space we’ve been able to increase the scope of the menu to include food from all over the country. The coconut is fundamental towhat we do here and feeds into every section in the kitchen. We prepare it every day and any left over is boiled until it splits to produce a ghee-like oil we use for frying the curry pastes.”

While the menu has been extended, it remains a concise affair that is worlds away from the comprehensive and largely identikit menus found at most UK Thai restaurants. Indeed, Som Saa is one of a tiny number of Thai restaurants operating outside Thailand to truly capture the essence of one of the world’s greatest cuisines. 

History

Oliver and Dobbie met while working at David Thompson’s Nahm in London and between them have worked at some of the world’s most distinguished Thai restaurants. Oliver’s CV includes Bo.Lan in Bangkok and the Australian-born Dobbie was head chef at Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok in New York and also at the Bangkok iteration of Nahm.

George – who oversees front of house – has been a self-confessed Thai food geek since happening on Thompson’s seminal book Thai Food in the early noughties and sought out Oliver a few years ago when he was cooking Thai food at Bar Story in Peckham with a vague plan to open a restaurant. “I asked him a question about Vietnamese mint and it all spiralled from there,” says George. “We’ve now spent 16 hours a day together for the past year and a half.”

In London Fields, Climpson’s Arch was the perfect place for the Som Saa’s low-budget debut, the semi-outdoor space’s ramshackle feel bringing to mind the equally rough-and-ready roadside stalls in Thailand where some of the country’s best food can be found. The residency was an unequivocal hit. It was so popular it was extended to six months and created ample buzz for the trio to launch an equally well-received crowdfunding bid.

Som-Saa-interior

The original target of £550,000 was reached within a couple of days and, a day or so after that, the brakes had to be slammed on. Some £700,000 was raised in total with roughly 35 per cent of the equity in the business now held by Som Saa’s customers (as is standard practice, the restaurant’s team invested its cash through Crowdcube too). The business has also taken on a minor amount of bank debt as a buffer against any early-doors cash-flow issues.

As befits a restaurant project that made its mark under a railway arch, the founders have been careful not to throw cash around. The total set-up costs for their permanent restaurant are extremely modest for its Shoreditch location and this initial frugality will likely ensure the restaurant becomes profitable quickly. An appetite for sweating their assets – the restaurant will only close on Monday lunchtime, will offer a brunch menu at the weekends and drive weekday lunchtime trade with a keenly priced selection of fast-cooking street-food dishes – will also help. 

Som Saa’s crowdfunding model is not as onerous as some. While they have needed to give their investors some perks – including a special reservation line and wine list – they’re not committed to giving away thousands of free meals.

“It’s a straightforward investment,” says George, whose résumé includes Polpo and Goodman. “The primary reason for investing is the equity itself and the return offered. We have given people a first view of the site, invited people to the soft launch and will keep them up to date with everything via an investor newsletter. But they haven’t been able to choose what colour the walls are going to be or anything like that.”

London meets Bangkok

If the Som Saa crew can pack out a restaurant in London Fields, it need not worry about filling tables at their new digs just to the south of Spitalfields Market on Commercial Street. The site – a former fabric warehouse – was identified a year ago. “We put a note through the door but the people that owned it never got back to us. We had to wait for a property agent to tell us about it, which costs us £20,000 in fees,” says George with a rueful grin.

“We knew we probably wanted something in East London but we were also looking closely at Soho, Fitzrovia and Bermondsey. We were picky. We said no to a lot of stuff,” adds Oliver.

The vision the trio had for a permanent Som Saa also required a lot of space both front and back of house, which would have been tricky in the West End where sq ft costs are much higher.

“It’s labour-intensive cuisine and to offer a full menu, we need five cooking sections. The numbers wouldn’t have added up if we had any fewer than 60 covers. If we’d opened in Soho the menu would have been smaller,” says Dobbie.

The design and fit out of the restaurant has been overseen by Coriander Buildings. The company is headed by Justin Gilbert, who recently partnered with Clive Watson (of The Garrison and The Riding House Café fame) to launch Blixen, which is just up the road from Som Saa. 

Those lucky enough to secure an early table won’t be surprised to learn the mood board for the project was filled with pictures of rickety Thai houses. The space has a warn, but not overly distressed, feel that makes good use of the building’s original features.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we started ripping off the McDonald’s yellow plaster but luckily it was covering up this really lovely brickwork,” says Dobbie.

som-saa-table

The brief given to Coriander Buildings was apparently one part Bangkok, one part London. “We were never going to turn a beautiful old London building into a themed Thai restaurant,” says Oliver. “There are a few Thai touches including old Thai movie posters and some other stuff we’ve picked up on our travels. There are a lot of clichés in Asian restaurant design that we have been careful to avoid.”

Som Saa has been cleverly zoned. Upon entering the space, customers are met with a large bar area. Behind that is the 85-seater restaurant, which has booth seating to the left, a middle area that is mainly tables of four plus a large communal table and a more intimate area to the right filled with two-tops.

Som Saa’s Climpson’s Arch residency didn’t take bookings, but George has compromised at the Commercial Street site. The restaurant takes reservations for larger parties (six plus) and also at lunchtimes but in the evenings the majority of the tables will be left free for walk-ins.

The 40-seater bar is a lot more than overspill or a holding pen for the restaurant. The team wants Som Saa to be known as much for its drinks as its food, and has employed an experienced team of bartenders. Cocktails includes the Krahang Old Fashioned (sandalwood-smoked bourbon, palm sugar gomme and mandarin peel) and Dragon’s Milk (sticky rice rum, Kahlua, coconut cream, condensed milk, salt and sesame). It is also the first restaurant to offer Camden Town Brewery’s Tank Beer.

These are served alongside gap klaem (Thai drinking snacks). “These are really popular in Thailand and we wanted to reflect that here,” says Dobbie. “They tend to be robustly flavoured and palate-stimulating. They’re salty, sour and spicy but, unlike other Thai dishes, not necessarily all at the same time. One of our favourites is pickled mustard greens with palm sugar and peanuts.”

Kitchen operation

The kitchen is split into five stations, which roughly correspond to the menu’s sections: a western-style stove for curries and soups, a large charcoal grill, three high-powered wok burners, a pastry area and a section for making salads and som tam, a fiery and pungent papaya salad made in a wooden pestle and mortar.

Som Saa’s two head chefs alternate between being on the pass and being on the line. This is especially sensible with Thai food because it’s the skill of the line cooks that ensures tastes remain authentic.

“It keeps our hand in, too,” says Oliver. “Having two head chefs has been great. While we have got a lot of staff that have worked with us previously, we have got some chefs that have never cooked Thai food before. That’s quite daunting.”

Inevitably, the way the kitchen is run at Som Saa has been influenced by Oliver and Dobbie’s time working at other distinguished Thai restaurants, Nahm and Bo.Lan in particular. Both restaurants are resolutely Thai in cooking style, but they have borrowed elements from the western kitchen, not least the rigour. “Thai kitchens tend to be quite laid back. They’re fun, relaxed places. But if you’re looking to serve food at the highest level, you do need a bit of discipline,” says Oliver.

Dobbie says that Som Saa has been at least partly insulated from the staffing crisis affecting many London kitchens because it offers chefs the chance to cook something different and to a high standard.

“Touch wood it hasn’t been too bad. We’ve had a lot of good guys approach us. People are prepared to work hard but in return they want to feel like they’re progressing and learning. We can offer that,” he says.

The chefs’ backgrounds are quite mixed. There are a couple of Thai chefs, some chefs with Michelin experience and some that have worked at some of the better Thai restaurants in London, including The Begging Bowl, the Peckham restaurant run by Jane Alty, another alumnus of the London Nahm.

Getting in the good stuff

Thompson’s UK outpost closed in 2012 with the famed Australian chef and Thai food expert citing problems with sourcing authentic Thai ingredients. Som Saa is using a complex network of supplies to ensure it gets the produce it needs. Some ingredients are sourced through the Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian community because they share a lot of ingredients in common with Thailand, some are exported directly from Thailand and others – including the eponymous som saa fruit – are produced in limited quantities by a specialist grower in Dorset.

The Som Saa kitchen is perhaps a little more flexible than Nahm when it comes to substituting certain ingredients. “In terms of the taste profile, we’re absolutely focused on the flavours you’d find in Thailand. And by that I mean the stuff you’d find in the really good places, which would include everything from a street-food cart to a restaurant. Even in Thailand, flavours are being dumbed down a little,” says Oliver.

“But we will use Western ingredients when it’s appropriate. Meat, game and fish are obvious examples but we swap out certain vegetables too if the flavour is right,” says Dobbie. For example, a popular dish in Thailand is raw vegetables with nam phrik, a spicy relish that usually involves copious amounts of dried chillies, garlic, shallots, lime juice and either fish sauce or shrimp paste. While the weird and wonderful vegetables that usually accompany it are very hard to obtain in the UK, the Som Saa team has substituted them for UK-grown produce that have similar flavour profiles.

Som-Saa-food

The launch menu pulls no punches and will be catnip to Thai food aficionados and anyone that likes their flavours big and powerful. A meal at Som Saa might include clams with turmeric, chillies and holy basil; coconut and pandanus-smoked trout served with pounded chilli relish and Thai herbs; grilled aubergine salad with egg and prawn floss; and Burmese-style pork belly and shoulder curry with pickled garlic and fresh ginger. 

While the vast majority of Som Saa’s customers are there to try new things, George has had to fine-tune the restaurant’s front-of-house service to ensure customers aren’t overfaced. The Guardian restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin talked about a gustatory version of Paradise Syndrome in her rave review of Som Saa last year and she’s on the money: the flavours on offer here are so intense it can get overwhelming if not properly managed.

“Getting the staff excited about the food is the first step. It’s really not difficult because once they try it, they’re hooked,” he says. “In every pre-service briefing, they’ll be an in-depth chat about a particular dish: what’s in it, how it’s made, what it tastes like and how it goes with other dishes.”

This is especially important because Som Saa’s waiters have to carefully oversee what each table orders to ensure a balanced meal and then work out the optimum order for the dishes to arrive.

“They can’t just write down the six things the customer wants to eat and put it into the till. Diners often make their selection based on the proteins they want to eat, but if they do that, they might end up with five things that are very spicy,” says George. To makes things a little easier, there’s a daily chef’s menu that suggests a balanced selection of dishes from the main menu. The team has avoided the almost ubiquitous chilli symbols used in UK Thai restaurants to indicate the level of chilli heat in a dish. “That’s not really us,” says Oliver. “We have had some issues with hot dishes. There’s hot and then there’s Thai hot, which is a rather different concept. A few people have got into difficulties. Some dishes can be varied by the kitchen but others must be served very spicy because that’s the whole point.”

If a customer wants the jungle curry, one of Som Saa’s hottest dishes, served mild, the front-of-house team will politely suggest they order a different curry. 

Related topics: Business, Restaurants, Venues, Food

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