A masterclass in northern Thai cuisine from the people who brought us Cafe Hanoi and Xuxu Dumpling Bar.
If you've been lucky enough to visit either Cafe Hanoi or Xuxu Dumpling Bar in the Britomart precinct, then the owners' new venture on Ponsonby Rd will be welcome news, and likely to send you shouting from the rooftops. Saan can be found in the former home of Video Ezy (RIP), a prime location next door to splashy pavement dining spot SPRQ. Like the fellow eateries of restauranteurs Krishna Botica, Tony McGeorge and Jason van Dorsten, Saan continues to follow the thread of South East Asian cuisine, this time focusing on the Lanna (Northern) and Isaan (North Eastern) regions of Thailand.
The concept of the restaurant is moulded around the vision of head chef Wichian (Lek) Trirattanavatin, taking traditional recipes from his family; photos of said family can be found scattered throughout the menu. The menu is divided into Khang Thang (street snacks), Jarn Rerm (smaller dishes), Jarn Lak (larger dishes), Khong Kiang (sides) and Khong Warn (desserts), dishes being laid out with milder items at the top and the heavy kickers down the bottom.
As well as two separate open kitchens allowing full view of the action, the floor staff also play their role by taking part at the table - mixing together the spicy sauce of the melting seared venison (Geang Sadoong), and unravelling the banana leaf from the steaming nugget of tarakihi (Ab Pla). Meat is a main player in the menu, offering everything from goat, soft-shell crab, pork sausage, beef neck and banana prawns. There are only two vegetarian (and both tofu) options across the savoury sections.
The 'Yum Pla Grob' ($32) fish comes out whole, and with the task of negotiating skin and bone already taken care of. The lightly-coated meat comes atop the deep fried skeleton, and manages to nail the balance of spicy, sweet and sour. The 'Moo Grob Prik King' ($28) pork belly red curry is another highlight of the larger plates, in the midst of the rich sauce and snake beans you'll encounter green peppercorns that ever so often explode in your mouth.
A rough guide to dish quota would be one street snack and a smaller dish between two, plus a larger plate per person to share; in addition to a side of sticky rice to soak up your remaining sauce.
Cocktails are also a main attribute of the menu. The 'Weeping Butterfly' ($18) combines tequila, chartreuse, lemongrass and cardamom, and comes presented with a large blue chai ice cube that apparently changes the colour of the drink as it melts - if you're patient enough to hold off from drinking it that is. 'By any other name' ($17) is what you'd call something of a deconstructed Pina Colada given the separated coconut cream floating above the rum and pineapple below; the initial mouthful of creaminess also pays off if you happen to choose something from the lower half of the menu.
With 'saan' meaning weave, the owners enlisted Cheshire Architects to carry the theme throughout the restaurant - the space has a disrupted (weaving) flow and a large section of the walls and booths utilise hand-weaved partitions. Everything else is bespoke and crafted to give off traditional yet relaxed vibes.
As word of mouth spreads, Saan will likely become the chief spot to visit any given night of the week. Thankfully reservations are accepted during the lunch service, and you can use those overdue Video Ezy late fines for something worthwhile.
Photo credit: Sarah Grace