I’ve been to Chiang Mai, but it wasn’t as good as this. Saan is a very beautiful restaurant on the corner of Douglas Street and Ponsonby Road where there used to be a Video Ezy that smelled a little like stale coffee. Now there’s a restaurant designed by Cheshire Architects that looks all faded and bleached, the light filtered through wooden venetian blinds and wicker screens, the ceramics made in Thailand by an artisan potter. It looks like a washed-out memory.
Saan comes to you from the owners of Cafe Hanoi: this time they’ve structured the restaurant around head chef Lek Trirattanavatin, who is originally from Chiang Mai in Thailand and so the food focuses on Isaan and Lanna food from the country’s north. Pleasingly, about half the menu are family recipes – including moo grob prik khing ($28), dry pork belly curry, redolent with whole bunches of green peppercorns and fragrant with kaffir lime, which is a dish developed by Lek’s father.
This is masterful cooking. Flavours are punchy, running from herbaceous to savoury, sour and hot to fermented and salty. Textures range through crunchy and grilled to soupy and meaty – there is barely a curry in sight and we are grateful for this. Each dish is beautifully composed, carefully balanced, as with the miang jin nuea ($15) semi-cured beef wrapped in big feathery perilla leaves with toasted coconut and a piquant tamarind chilli jam, the meat beautifully cured and the leaves giving off the lightest cleansing breath of aniseed.
We’ve also eaten a plate of lanna pork sausages, which came with a green chilli and kaffir lime paste, full of lemongrass and kaffir lime, fragrant and hot. We ate nahm prik ong ($17), pork mince tossed with lanna chilli paste and served with pork crackling, the lanna chilli paste fermented and savoury. The tom som soup ($12) is simple and fragrant, with whole pieces of chicken. The gai yarng wichian ($24), chicken chargrilled over charcoal, is fabulously tender and smoky, with a sticky sour-sweet dipping sauce: we advise you to eat this with your hands, then sit back and relish your good luck. SFG
HOURS Monday & Tuesday, 5pm until late. Wednesday to Sunday, 12 noon until late.
ADDRESS 160 Ponsonby Road, ph 320-4237. saan.co.nz
IMPORTANT DETAILS No bookings for dinner though they do take ‘em for lunch. Also: the private dining room is a thing of beauty. And! There is plenty of parking in the carpark behind the building.