Bao Fitzrovia and Som Saa

It seems a little unnecessary to point you in the direction of Bao Fitzrovia and Som Saa, given the notoriety unanimous praise from numerous sources provides. And yet it would be remiss not to mention them here, given they are two of only a handful of properly good, interesting, level-upping restaurants to open in 2016 (so far).

So consider them both mentioned and one of them doodled.

More words required? Read on.

The ever popular Taiwanese gua bao specialists second bricks and mortar site is larger and sleeker than the first. Upstairs is light and calm, with a horseshoe bar for us punters to sit around. Downstairs is metallic and a little moody, dimly lit save for the fluorescent glow of a busy open kitchen – which prepares food for a menu that is both the same and yet totally different to the Soho branch.

Same in that it’s a mix of clever little £2-6 plates and bowls, umami topped rice bowls and of course their gua bao – the classic, confit pork, lamb shoulder and daikon bao feature again, plus a dramatic, squid ink battered cod option.

Different in that those little dish and rice options are all new. There are no blood cake and cured egg yolk instagram opportunities here. Nor an opportunity to chow down on excellent guinea fowl-topped rice, cavolo nero salad, pig trotter nuggets or ice-cream bao neither.

I have to say that on my first and possibly second visits I resented this; as all of the above dishes form my staple order at the Lexington Street site. By the end of my fourth Fitzrovia meal, however, I’d made peace with the situation.

Is the chicken ‘chop’ with hot sauce and egg yolk (£6) a nod to the schnitzels cooked in the restaurant that previously occupied the site? Whether it is or not, this is crisp, tender, juicy, flavoursome, and generally one of the better fried chicken items you’ll eat in London.

Raw langoustine in aged soy (£5), dotted with a dulse ketchup and oyster leaves are sweet, refined, moreish (ask for a spoon to finish the soy). Their crisp, deep fried heads (£4.75) are visceral and even more addictive.

I love octopus sanbei (£6), where tender chunks of cephalopod mingle with crisp nuggets of aged beef fat, tongue tingling pepper, and a soy and no doubt multiple other umami rich condiment glaze. And tomatoes sprinkled with dehydrated plum powder (£2.75) might’ve been the dish that sealed the deal yesterday. Sweet, sharp, fizzy –  Tangfastics dressed up as a salad. Nuts.

Marina mentioned that this is a different type of dining to a traditional restaurant meal. There may be queues, but they move quickly and, once seated, you could easily order, eat and be out in 30-40 minutes. In any event, whilst the food comes fast, it lives long in the memory and it remains good value – £25 per person will sort you out, not including drinks (the cocktails are as inventive as the food).

Bao Fitzrovia in 3 words

Innovative, satisfying b[ao]ites.

The Bill

£25pp + drinks – 31 Windmill Street, W1T 2JN – No reservations (Mon-Sat 12-3pm; 5:30-10pm)

Som Saa

Crowd funded, crowd pleasing, mouth numbing, sensory overloading, joy inducing, top quality but informal, authentic regional Thai food … what remains to be written about Som Saa?

They opened on Commercial Street back in, what, April? And, unsurprisingly given the success of their lengthy London Fields pop-up, were apparently immediately smashing it in terms of the quality of food they were cooking, and the number of people queuing to get a seat and a taste of their food. Hot and sour soups; heady, aromatic stir fries; and *that* deep fried sea bass pulled in the punters and reviewers. For some reason I didn’t find a moment to visit until a weekday lunch a few weeks ago.

Yes, they do lunch – and it’s marginally easier to get a table at that time (arrive early, though).

So many good things landed in front of us. The smokey, grilled aubergine salad with egg and prawn floss (£8.50) and whole fried sea bass (£16) were at least as good as they had been when I enjoyed them under a railway arch. In fact, the fish was much better. The other times I’d eaten it I wondered why people fussed about a dry, essentially overcooked fried bass; albeit one accompanied by an amazing, layered, fresh and herby dressing. Perhaps there was more flesh this time, but it seemed more succulent than before, and impossible to stop picking at.

Coconut marinaded grilled prawns (£8.50) were pretty ridiculous. Pork belly bites and dipping sauce irresistible. Green papaya som tam salad (£9) was refreshing and sweat inducing all at the same time. And the jungle curry (£13) raised the heat to a near uncomfortable 11 at exactly the point I pondered whether things could be spicier.

This type of food is best in groups of three of four, so you can order and try as many different things as possible. With that in mind, when plates arrived I wondered whether portions could be bigger – but by the end I was defeated by the amount of food and flavour we’d taken on, and didn’t feel the pricing was unfair.

Basically, Som Saa is ace and worth visiting and re-visiting; regardless of the frustrations of either having to wait and hope for a seat on the night, or being forward-minded enough to book a large table many weeks in advance. Better than it not being there at all, right? (Hard to imagine central London now without Smoking Goat and Som Saa, isn’t it?).

Som Saa in 3 words

Feisty finger-licking Thai

The Bill

£35–40pp for food, but you’ll want to soften the aromatics and spice with drinks too – 43A Commercial Street, E1 6BD – 020 73247790