Food by VICE

The Sea Bass at This London Thai Restaurant Might Stare at You

“It looks a bit scary—a bit of fried fish head staring at you,” admits co-head chef Andy Oliver of the signature whole-fried sea bass at London Thai eatery Som Saa. “But it’s really fun to eat. It’s how they’d serve it in Thailand.”

by Michael Segalov
Apr 19 2016, 10:00am
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The kitchen at London Thai restaurant Som Saa. All photos by the author.

It's friends and family night at Som Saa. Co-head chefs Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver are in the kitchen of the recently opened London restaurant, shredding herbs and checking dishes as they make their way over the pass.

Out in the dining room, their nearest and dearest are gathered—nervously waiting to see whether the months of work leading up to the restaurant's opening have paid off.

Judging from the dishes being laid on the tables in front of us, I reckon they probably have.

The Som Saa story starts in 2009 at Nahm, the Thai restaurant founded by Australian chef David Thompson. Dobbie and Oliver met in the kitchen when the restaurant was based at London's Halkin Hotel, both eager to learn from Thompson's contemporary take on Thai cuisine.

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Som Saa co-head chefs Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie.

"Mark and I are massively inspired by David," says Oliver, as we stand in a corner of the heaving kitchen. "He has a huge influence over any chef that works for him. He's a creative genius: dogmatic, relentless, and uncompromising in the way he cooks Thai food."

The two chefs talked about one day running their own Thai eatery but when Thompson moved Nahm to Bangkok's Metropolitan hotel in 2010, they parted ways. Dobbie took a job at New York's Pok Pok and under head chef Andy Ricker, was part of the team that earned the restaurant a Michelin star. Oliver, meanwhile found himself in Thailand's bustling capital, spending six days a week in the kitchens at Bo.lan, a restaurant set up by fellow Thompson disciples Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones.

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Despite being in different countries, the pair stayed in touch.

"I ended up working at the Begging Bowl in Peckham, South London," Oliver tells me, dipping a spoon into a simmering wok of stock. "On my day off, I used to do this grill. I'd drag a barbecue down to Bar Story and do Thai salads and amazing grilled stuff: salt-crusted fish, Thai-style grilled chicken, pork … anything I fancied cooking, really."

It might have been a bit of fun but Oliver's grill soon gained a reputation. Fellow food industry types—also with Mondays free—headed down each week.

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"Tom [George] came down, who's now the restaurant manager, because he'd heard good stuff about me, and we started talking about opening a restaurant," remembers Oliver.

George and Oliver decided to start small with a series of one-day street food stalls across the capital. In November last year, they began a residency at Climpson's Arch, a pop-up restaurant space in Hackney run by a local coffee roastery.

With Dobbie back from New York ("My visa was running out, it worked out perfectly!" he laughs), the team quickly took shape—as did Som Saa's reputation. Their fresh northern Thai salads and Bangkok-style fish dishes wooed restaurant critics, and Oliver's homemade coconut cream gained cult-like status.

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Oliver and Dobbie stayed at Climpson's Arch for a year, setting up a crowdfunding venture to launch a permanent restaurant at the same time. It didn't take long for them to secure the £550,000 they needed, with the majority of donors being customers.

"We're not the first people to have crowdfunded a restaurant, although it's still a pretty new idea," says Oliver. "The Clove Club did it, and Jonathan Downey who runs Street Feast—in fact he put the idea into my head."

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Stir-fried British clams with fresh turmeric, chili, and holy basil.

Investors in Som Saa get equity in the business, as well as other benefits: invitations to parties, priority booking, and if they invest enough, bar tabs.

"They're a friendly bunch and become part of the story," Oliver says of his funders, moving over to the griddle to give something a taste. "They're mostly our customers, industry people who came to eat, friends of friends, family members. It's a nice crowd to have behind you."

As another ticket comes through into the kitchen, I'm instructed to head back into the dining room. "I'm going to serve you now," Oliver smiles, sending me to a table looking out over Spitalfields' Commercial Street.

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Diners at Som Saa's recent "friends and family night."

Out of the kitchen comes a fiercely hot bowl of stir-fried British clams, tossed in fresh turmeric, three types of chili, and holy basil. Accompanying it is a salted beef cheek Penang, a peanut-heavy red curry with homemade coconut cream—made fresh in the kitchen each day.

As a crowd gathers enviously outside the window (at least one bloke pops his head inside before being gently informed that it's a private evening), a deep-fried sea bass is brought to my table. It's seriously crispy, served with a herb-heavy salad and sour dressing sprinkled with a nutty roasted rice.

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Crispy whole-fried sea bass.

"It looks a bit scary," admits Oliver, referring to the cartoon-cat's-dinner appearance of the fish. "A bit of fried fish head staring at you—but it's really fun to eat. It's how they'd serve it in Thailand."

Som Saa's ingredients are similarly authentic, with Oliver and Dobbie going to extra lengths to source herbs and spices as close as to what would be used in Thailand as possible.

"Ingredients are a massive deal for us and it's hard to find a lot of products that are vital because of import bans from Asia," explains Oliver.

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Makrut lime leaves, imported by Som Saa from Spain.

He grabs a handful of makrut lime leaves, explaining that import restrictions mean sourcing them fresh from Thailand is illegal. Most restaurants rely on frozen packets to get by.

"I'm involved in a farm in Spain that grows [makrut lime leaves]. There's no restrictions so we get them fresh," he adds. The Spanish farmer has also agreed to grow small orange chilies specially for the restaurant.

With other ingredients, Som Saa doesn't need to search quite so far.

"We source banana flowers, coconut palm, and wild ginger from the Indian community," says Oliver. "The fresh Southeast Asian herbs come from the Vietnamese shops just down the road."

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It also turns out that the long green chilies served in the Turkish restaurants up the road from Som Saa are similar to the Thai variety. Still, Oliver and Dobbie rely on much produce sourced direct from Thailand—sometimes by unusual means.

"We're always asking friends to sneak stuff back from Thailand for us," says Dobbie. "Especially som saas—the rare and underused citrus fruit we're named after."