I have a saying, never trust a person who says they love pad thai. It’s an overly sweet bundle of same-same, lacking the complex myriad of spice and flavours that makes Thai cuisine great. Hence my reasoning, you can’t really love Thai if you love pad thai. Unfortunately this dish has become synonymous with Thai food, the latter becoming the bread and butter of cheap BYO meals and mundane takeaways.
But thank God for Saan. It has received high praise for its authenticity, with head chef Lek Trirattanavatin allowed free reign in the kitchen. The food is hot, tasty, and not one bit dumbed down for our tastes. Go hot or go home, I say. Plus the restaurant is simply gorgeous.
It’s hard not to gawk when you push the door open to Saan; one does so in the same way one’s jaw drops when they enter a five-star resort, and that is exactly what Saan feels like. I’m generally suspicious of anyone who would adorn their house in this much beige but at Saan it works; the place is demure and the bar is gloriously decked out like someone’s private saloon, with liquor bottles on display in pale wood and glass cabinetry. It’s a far cry from the gold and pictures of the royal family we’re used to seeing. A number of tables are cloistered on three sides by rattan screens giving diners a (false) sense of privacy whilst a long narrow communal table runs alongside an open kitchen where one can spy chefs barbecuing meat skewers and flipping things in woks.
The menu is divided by Thai words I don’t know the meaning of but in one corner we have small plates of the street food variety, moving down into entrees and then up to main dishes of the meatier variety before finishing with a small number of vegetable accompaniments and a plate of homemade pork crackling.
You heard right, pork crackling.
Luckily Tizzy and I were on a similar wave length that evening which made ordering (an otherwise difficult task once you see their menu) easy. We thought we’d start the ball rolling with chargrilled wild boar (!,) coconut and curry paste with peanut sauce and cucumber pickle, although dishes came out in a wonky sort of order, our skewers arriving last when we’d mostly satiated ourselves on everything else leaving little patience for fiddling about with chewy meat on a stick. My only experience with wild boars would be swiping left on the numerous dead specimens being carried around on the backs of Marlborough men, but I think I’d swipe left on them again if given the opportunity. Any gamey flavour that could be had seemed lost in the tidal wave of peanut sauce that engulfed the skewers. It was satay, by any other name. The grilled banana leaf parcel of market fish with lesser galangal and Thai herbs also came at the end and seemed to be white noise in our mouths following more intensely flavoured dishes.
But that’s where all the negatives end. The lon phu nim, an entree of crispy fried soft shell crab with pickled crab, coconut sauce, dill and cucumber, was simply outstanding. The crab was crisp perfection, foiled beautifully by the mauve coconut sauce and a bit of tang to keep things grounded. The moo grob prik khing, a dish of spicy pork belly stir fried with house red curry paste, snake beans, chilli, kaffir lime and young peppercorns had Tizzy and I picking past the point of full. I can’t get enough of pickled green peppercorns, the little pop of flavour they give off with a mouthful of pork, you must try it. The accompanying salad of som tam (green papaya salad) was a fine rendition of this ubiquitous dish.
Like at the end of a great holiday, we left Saan a little sad but fortified by the knowledge there are future visits on the horizon.
160 Ponsonby Road