Somtum Der is unlike any other Thai restaurant in the city. It’s not just the look, though the bold red facade certainly stands out in the drab Yoyogi backstreets, and the chic, bright interior reflects a contemporary sensibility, not one rooted in the cliches of tradition.
What really sets this new arrival apart is that it serves and celebrates the distinctive cuisine of Isan, the arid, less-developed northeast of Thailand. So the focus is not on the tried-and-true standards of the lush Thai heartland — coconut-rich curries, pad Thai rice noodles, spicy-sour soups and the like. Instead, the house special is som tum.
This sweet-sour-spicy salad of shredded green papaya is hardly the most obvious choice for a signature dish. The fiery flavors launch a full-on assault on your palate, no matter how much the chilies are toned down. It’s not a recipe for faint hearts or sensitive palates.
Nor is it one that can be prepared in advance and churned out at will. Unless som tum is made fresh to order, the papaya will be soggy and the flavors all mushed together. That is why pride of place in the open kitchen goes to the som tum chef, who you can observe as he selects his ingredients and pounds them with his wooden pestle and mortar.
He has half a dozen versions in his repertoire. For the basic style, tum thai, he blends green beans, peanuts and cherry tomatoes with the unripe papaya, seasoning the mix with nam pla (fermented fish sauce), wedges of lime and a judicious quantity of dark-red chilies. There are other versions made with pork, salted egg or fish — the one with crisp-fried minced catfish is excellent. He’ll even drop in a whole brined river crab if you want yours in deep Isan style.
What else to order? Don’t miss the larb, spicy minced meat blended with herbs and spices. Again, the catfish version is good, but the one to try is made with duck meat (larb ped). As with the som tum, you will be asked to specify your heat level: For most people born outside Indochina, three chilies will be more than enough.
Sadly kai yang (the iconic Isan charcoal-grilled chicken) is not on the menu. But the skewers of marinated pork or beef make a worthy alternative. And no meal at Somtum Der is complete without a serving of crisp-fried chicken thighs (or wings).
It is an impressive, well-oiled operation. Which makes sense when you know that it’s the fifth outlet of this successful Bangkok eatery, and that for a while the New York branch actually boasted a Michelin star.
Here in Yoyogi, it is unlikely to reach that level. But the word is out, and the staff at the door, no matter how cheerful and polite, will ruthlessly turn you away if you arrive without a reservation.
Set lunch from ¥850; dinner a la carte; English menu; English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
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