Claudia Davaar Lambie samples spicy dishes at one of the hottest Thai restaurants in town, Somtum Der. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Diners at Somtum Der are first greeted by paintings streaked in shades of red and yellow of Isan people native to the northeastern region of Thailand. One of the owners, Tran Huy, 29, explains that the artwork merges traditional Isan figures in a Vietnamese propaganda style. These hybrid creations are also present in the Isan cuisine; a delightful mix of Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese fare.
The three-story restaurant opened in February 2016 after the success of its sister branches in Bangkok and New York, the latter boasting a Michelin Star. Thanaruek Laoraowirodge launched the restaurant with the sole purpose of bringing traditional Isan cuisine to Vietnam. “The food is as authentic as ever and we don’t compromise on the taste,” says Tran.
Isan cuisine is known for its abundant use of spices and chili. The word ‘spicy’ appears as a prefix to most of the dishes on the menu yet anyone sensitive to that burning sensation shouldn’t be scared off. The spices are blended well, and are offset by the tang of pla ra – Thai for fermented fish sauce.
Tran says the dishes are meant to be shared “family-style” and recommends some key ones to try. Sontum, or green papaya salad (VND95,000), is the star of the menu. Served with pla ra, vermicelli noodles and pork crackling, it bursts with a freshness and fragrance that, if too fiery, could be doused with a few swigs of the Thai Sabai cocktail, harbouring cooling hints of rum and Thai basil (VND110,000).
A coating of chili flakes runs deep in the Der-styled deep fried chicken wings (VND85,000), seeping through the skin and into the tender meat. For any wing connoisseurs out there, they taste similar to former District 2 haunt Baan Thai’s offerings.
The prawn sashimi (VND150,000) appears a little strange upon arrival. The de-shelled uncooked prawns remain whole and are cured in chili, ginger, lime juice and palm sugar. The result is tender zingy prawns but boy do they pack a punch. A hearty bowl of spicy catfish soup (VND85,000) was up next. The fish is barbequed before it is added to the soup and the combination of spicy, sour and charcoaled flavours blend well together.
Der, or ‘warm invitation’ in the Isan language, reflects the casual and friendly ambience of the restaurant. Lights made from Isan wicker baskets hang from the walls while the baskets stowed on the shelves are also used for sticky rice. All of the decoration is imported from the region and some of the ingredients are imported from Thailand, adding authenticity to the food. As it’s time to leave, pla ra arrives by the box load. Tran enthusiastically waves me off. He’s achieved his main aim of the day: for “customers to leave with happiness”.