Oct 29, 2015 Restaurants
Words by Alice Harbourne. Photos by Sarah Grace and Alice Harbourne.
“Has everyone eaten?” Krishna Botica asks her team of staff as she inspects the ivory interior of Saan restaurant one last time before opening. “Ianthe you’re on the door, so make sure you get some food.”
With over 20 years of hospitality experience, Botica knows that happy, well-fed staff result in happy, well-fed customers, though her commitment to this philosophy, with business partners Tony McGeorge and Jason van Dorsten, is rather extraordinary. Saan is the second restaurant started by the team that has been inspired by a staff member’s personal passion, the first being Britomart’s Cafe Hanoi.
“Our M.O is following someone else’s dream” explains Botica. “If you trust their judgement, work ethic and HR skills, then it makes sense.”
Thai chef Wichian “Lek” Trirattanavatin’s ambition was first noticed in the Cafe Hanoi kitchen, where he started as a wok chef. He’d prepare delicious and extravagant staff meals from a repertoire of unusual Thai dishes passed down from his parents and grandparents. His natural talent saw him promoted to head chef, and then 18 months ago, he pitched the idea of a Thai restaurant unlike any other in the city to his bosses. They said yes, unequivocally.
He’s now able to share the Isaan and Lanna cuisine of his family – generations of whom were chefs themselves – in a Nat Cheshire-designed restaurant on Ponsonby Rd.
I sit opposite Lek at the kitchen’s pass as he guides me through the menu. He acts like it’s a photo album of his children, each dish a reason for him to beam with pride. I must try the Sai Ua, he explains, because it so accurately tastes like the signature street dish of Chiang Mai. Hand-minced pork, kaffir lime and aromatic spices combine to make a chewy and spicy sausage that fills your head with lemongrass, coriander and chilli with one bite.
My “I’m not crying because it’s spicy, I’m crying because I’m happy!” attempt at nonchalance is fooling no one, and when Lek hands me a bowl of freshly chopped cucumber I’m grateful for its coolness, aware of simultaneously losing mine.
He goes easy on me with the next dish, the Lon Phu Nim – crispy fried soft shell crab with pickled crab and coconut sauce. It’s a textural delight; creamy sauce, creamy crab meat, crispy everything else. Lek says it’s something his family eats regularly in Thailand, available at both morning and night markets in their hometown.
When the third dish is presented – a zingy duck larb – I find myself surveying the bowls like an indecisive bird of prey, taking sips from a pretty tequila, lime and lemongrass cocktail in the pauses between swoops of sticky rice.
I’d recommend the Tub Tim Grob for dessert (though I imagine Lek’s mango sticky rice is the bomb). Refreshing bites of caramelised water chestnuts, palm fruit and jackfruit and smoky coconut milk cleanse the palate.
It’s wonderful to see anyone realise their dreams, even better when it’s done so well. A research trip to Thailand helped the owners see what Lek wanted to achieve. The winding seating layout, for example, is inspired by the experience of getting lost in a Thai market. Cane chairs designed by Aucklander Ben Glass, and Thai ceramic lampshades complete the aesthetic; you’d never believe this was once a Video Ezy.
There’s a saying found mostly on Instagram: if you don’t build your own dream, someone will hire you to build theirs. Don’t believe it, Saan is proof that someone might just hire you to build yours.
160 Ponsonby Rd