Sate your noodle cravings at Adam Cliff’s Thai street-food joint, designed to look like a Bangkok shophouse.
*Featured in Crave’s October 2016 issue
Text by Tiffany Chan, food photos by Joe Kwong
Behind coral-coloured folding gates and rattan blinds, Samsen – Australian chef Adam Cliff’s noodle-centric Thai street-food concept – looks like a Bangkok shophouse: vintage Thai flyers are tacked on peeling cement walls, an open kitchen is lined with bubblegum-pink and seafoam-green plastic bowls, and rustic louvered cabinets hold vintage trinkets.
Cliff has spent most of his culinary career in Thai kitchens, including Sailors Thai in Sydney, the venerable Nahm in London and Bangkok, and Bo.lan in Bangkok. In 2013, he moved to Hong Kong as the founding chef of Chachawan, winning something of a cult following. However, he found himself longing for the noodles he loved to eat in Bangkok, but couldn’t find in Hong Kong.
“[My partner] Bella and I just wanted noodles,” Cliff says. “I wish there were a more romantic story behind it, but there’s not. I lived in Thailand for five years, I was missing it. Noodles are generally eaten during the daytime. They’re a little bit lighter and yet they still carry the punch of Thai cuisine: the salty, the sour, the spicy.”
The dish that everyone talks about is his boat noodles, or kua tiao ruea, traditionally served from boats on Bangkok’s narrow canals. Thin rice noodles are steeped in a rich, intense soup thickened with pig blood, swimming with wagyu beef brisket, beef balls, chopped up morning glory and crispy pork rinds.
“I called up a few guys I’d known and said, let’s make a really, really good boat noodle. Let’s have a boat noodle restaurant. They looked at me like I was crazy,” Cliff says. “It’s common food, it’s workers’ food, there’s nothing fine dining about it, the flavours and style are quite upfront. There’s no prancing around.”
Noodles aside, Cliff also injected the menu with his favourite Bangkok street food: deep-fried eggs, still runny in the middle, served with chilli jam; pungent, unapologetically spicy pork or duck larb wrapped in fresh lettuce with Thai herbs; crispy paper-thin fish skin; and pork collar, fried until crispy, dipped in tomato and chilli sauce.
Yet on any given evening, most diners have a bowl of boat noodles in front of them, their attention wholly fixated on the dark, delicious broth. And maybe, like us, they’ll order seconds.
1. Green Mango Salad
This may look like just a salad, but its appearance belies its complexity. Julienned green mango is piled high with peeled shrimp, dried shrimp, peanuts, onion and chilli, and dressed in a zesty, sweet sauce of lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce. It hits all the right notes, sweet, sour, and spicy. If, like us, you hit a chilli landmine, some bites are explosively, tongue-numbingly spicy. We also loved this salad for its varied textures – crisp mango, crunchy peanuts, dried shrimp.
2. Wagyu Beef Boat Noodle
Full-flavoured and full-bodied, Cliff’s dark broth is rich and thick, deriving its viscosity from pig blood and coconut cream, which makes the broth slightly oily when cooked out. With chunks of tender wagyu beef brisket, springy beef balls, chopped up strands of morning glory and fried pork rinds, every mouthful explodes with fire and flavour. Thin, elastic rice noodles absorb the broth well; any thicker and the dish would be too heavy. This is a soul-restoring dish. Our only complaint is the quantity of noodles; while Cliff has already increased the amount by 15 per cent, we think it needs 20 per cent more to mop up the addictive broth.
3. Phat Thai Noodles of Tiger Prawns
Pad Thai are everywhere in Hong Kong, and it’s easy to take it for granted. Flat rice noodles are piled with bean sprouts, spring onions, crushed peanuts, dried shrimp, fried tofu, shredded green papaya and plump, slightly charred tiger prawns. Cliff’s version was sweet, but not cloyingly so. Made to order in individual batches, the noodles had a good amount of wok hei. Sure, you could walk a few blocks and find a pad Thai for half the price, but it will be average at best and wet slop at worst. This one is neither.
4. Fried Egg with Chilli Jam
How does one deep-fry a whole egg and preserve the runniness of the yolk? The secret is in the timing. The eggs are boiled just until they can be shelled, chilled to just before freezing point, and deep-fried for as long as possible without being overcooked. Cutting into the egg reveals a molten golden centre, spilling onto the plate like lava. The egg was excellent, but we found the sauce – palm sugar, tamarind and fish sauce – slightly too sweet for our taste and could use some balance.
5. Young Coconut Ice Cream
The first thing we loved about this ice cream was how much like young coconut it tasted – fresh, mildly sweet and aromatic. Served in a baby coconut husk with shaved coconut flesh, corn and peanuts, it’s a thoughtful dessert and a welcome relief from the bold, punchy flavours of the other dishes. We also recommend the Thai milk tea ice cream (not pictured). Even without fanciful garnishes, it is perfect – rich, silky smooth and full of tea flavour.
68 Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai
Tel: 2234 0001