Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Meal in Brief: Saan

We came here because we had read glowing reviews about this northern Thai (Lanna and Isaan) restaurant in Ponsonby.

The menu was printed on one page, with four sections which the waiter explained were like starters, small sharing plates, larger dishes, and sides. Everything looked different from what we have seen in other Thai restaurants—where were the spring rolls and numerous curry options? Or white jasmine rice for that matter? Is this what it means to eat northern Thai?

The setting was beautifully fitted out, as one would expect from a Cheshire Architects design, with ceramics made in Thailand by an artisan potter. The sun came in through the slats of venetian blinds, illuminating a bit of smoke, giving the room a hazy atmosphere.

Beautiful restaurant fitout.

At the back of the restaurant was an open kitchen area, where you could see the chefs preparing the meals.

Open kitchen area.

The service was flawless, with our water topped up discreetly and regularly. Staff were available when you wanted them, without being overly attentive. When our larger dishes arrived, we were given a little bowl of cucumber, cabbage and crushed ice as a palate cleanser—a nice touch!

Weeping Butterfly cocktail and caramelised pineapple shrub.

What we ate included:
  • Theu Kha Kho (deep fried taro cakes and tofu, chilli dipping sauce and peanuts, $12) - while the taro cakes were surprisingly firm and dense (probably more rice flour than taro), the tofu triangles were fried to perfection, crisp on the outside and moist and soft inside.
  • Pak Som (house pickled seasonal vegetables, $8) - a mix of stir-fried cabbage, dark greens and pickled vegies, this side dish had a tangy flavour and reminded us of something we've had at Chinese restaurants.
  • Somtum Phu Plarah (pickled crab and spicy green papaya salad, tomatoes and snake beans, $14) - this version of a papaya salad came with hard and salty crab legs for sucking on, but was somehow less exciting than the other items we tasted.
  • Miang Jin Nuea (semi cured beef on perilla leaves with peanuts, toasted coconut and tamarind chilli jam, $15) - it was good that we could see the fried shallots, fresh chilli slices, coconut flakes and chopped peanuts, because once you wrapped everything in a leaf, it became a more mellow blur of flavours.
Clockwise from left: Theu Kha Kho, Pak Som, Somtum Phu Plarah, and Miang Jin Nuea.

  • Sai Ua (Lanna pork sausage with aromatic spices and kaffir lime with young green chilli paste, $15) - unlike any other sausage we'd tried before, the kaffir lime flavour came through clearly in this dish recommended by the waiter. The accompanying Vietnamese mint leaves, chopped shallots and green chilli paste added extra aroma and freshness. Well worth trying.
Sai Ua - Lanna pork sausage.

  • Gaem Wua Sarm Ros (twice cooked beef cheeks with spicy pickled chilli and tamarind sauce, $26) - we enjoyed the beef cheeks in its sour and spicy sauce, but there was a lot more meat there and they could easily have cut back on it.
Gaem Wua Sarm Ros - beef cheeks.

  • Larb Ped (wok seared spicy duck and mint salad with ground toasted rice and fried kaffir lime leaf, $25) - this was the best larb we have had, with a fatty duck mince complemented by the minty, spicy dressing, and garnished with crunchy fried duck skin.
Partially eaten Larb Ped - warm duck and mint salad.

  • Tub Tim Grob (caramelised water chestnuts, palm fruit, jackfruit, and young coconut meat in jasmine and rose syrup, topped with smoked coconut milk, $12) - drizzled with coconut milk at the table, this delicate and floral dessert was thankfully relatively light and a great way to end our meal.
Tub Tim Grob dessert.

Overall, Saan is almost certainly the best Thai restaurant in Auckland today. The food is exquisite, particularly the larger dishes we sampled, playing confidently with flavour, texture and presentation, and making good use of fresh herbs (though we were tempted to pluck some more Vietnamese mint from a pot plant next to our table). We can't wait to come back again.

Restaurant Details

160 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby, Auckland
(09) 320 4237

Opening hours:
Mondays to Tuesdays 5pm till late
Wednesdays to Sundays 12pm till late

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