Restaurant review: Saan
Ponsonby’s restaurants are getting so good, could we all please do something about the traffic?
Words by Simon Wilson, photo by Sarah Grace. This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Metro.
160 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby.
Hours: Mon-Tue 5pm till late; Wed-Sun noon till late.
Dinner bill: Small plates $12-$16; mid-size $12-$24; larger $14-$34. Desserts $12.
I know, you want to read about the restaurant. But I need to get something off my chest first. It’s this: if I read another piece about Ponsonby — a restaurant review or anything else — that complains about the lack of parking, I will start throwing my food.
This is why. The worst thing about Ponsonby is the traffic. Who doesn’t agree with that? But if they provide more parks, it will get even worse than it is now. That’s because more parks will bring more cars. I’m not making it up; this phenomenon has been measured all over the world.
Ponsonby Rd will never be a vehicle-free zone, if only because it has a motorway onramp at both ends. But it could be a lot more pleasant than it is now, as a place to shop, eat and drink, ride a bike or walk the dog. And who doesn’t want that?
The key to making it happen is this: unless you really need to, don’t drive there. Use Uber. Catch a cab. Take the bus! The InnerLink runs both ways every 10 minutes or so and the route goes through Parnell, Newmarket and the central city — that is, whatever place you’re likely to be coming from, it will take you to Ponsonby.
If people stopped driving up and down Ponsonby Rd looking for a park, it could become a single lane for cars each way with wider pavements, more trees, bike lanes and, most of all, more delightful streetlife. You could sit in the open window of a place like Saan and watch the world go by (on foot, obviously), and enjoy their thrillingly good food, sparkling service and intoxicatingly wonderful drinks. Soaking up that sense you get in a really good ethnic restaurant of being here and yet also being marvellously not here.
You may have guessed, I love Saan. And I think what it does is so good, it’s a crime it has to put up with such a crappy street. It’s not alone, either. Places like Moochowchow and Ponsonby Rd Bistro are already pretty fine, but think how much more rewarding the experience they offer would be — on the sunny side of the street — if they had wide paved courtyards to play with. Think what the front of SPQR could become with the same. It’d be like hanging out in the colonnaded bars of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, only with trees. (Er, almost — Ed.)
And think what the shopping would be like if the stores could spill into the open air. It’s all possible, once we stop driving to the place where we want to have a few drinks.
Anyway, Saan. Restaurateur Krishna Botica will forever be honoured for giving us Prego, but she’s moved on, with business partners Tony McGeorge and Jason van Dorsten, to Cafe Hanoi and now to Saan, where she runs the floor.
She’s got the trick of busy calm. Every great restaurant has a person out front who treats each problem as a delightful opportunity to make someone feel special. Botica is that person.
The chef is Lek Trirattanavatin, and it’s the not-so-hidden genius of this place that, not only is he a great cook with great recipes, he has been allowed to make the most of them. Saan is a Thai treat.
Ab pla (fish in banana leaf parcels) have a fragrance so rich with galangal, lemongrass and other herbs, it seems almost a shame to eat them. Yum pla grob (whole fish) has a sweet and sour sauce that will revolutionise your very idea of the dish. There are Issan and Lanna sai (pork sausages), served to a deliciously eye-watering spiciness; and a yum sawai (a side salad of broad beans and other vegetables) that is utterly splendid in its full-flavoured freshness and lime-and-chilli sharpness.
I wasn’t quite so thrilled about the larb ped (minced duck), which wasn’t as spicy as suggested and yet wasn’t as ducky either. But I really liked the tub tim grob to finish: a concoction of caramelised water chestnuts, palm fruit and jackfruit in a smoky coconut milk, it’s just the thing for mellowing out the end of the meal.
I also loved the cocktails. These are not glasses filled with ice and a bit of flavouring that disappears in a minute or two, but full-flavoured delights, beautiful to behold and flavoursome to the last sip.
The design, by Nat Cheshire, uses blond wood and canework to create a spa-like sense of relaxation, with shutters and windows that will open fully to the world when the weather is right.
I’m not giving Saan five spoons (yet?) because they’re still settling in, training the staff and developing their systems, and not quite all the food is superb.
But with all that’s good about it, and a profoundly mixed clientele — families, couples, different ethnicities, Ponsonby cool and suburban-not-so-much — Saan’s like a little glowing beacon of how good Auckland can be. So much to love.