Samsen's Adam Cliff on the Joy of Thai Noodles
A regular diner at Chachawan often jokes about her day being ruined once when the lemongrass clams—a pot of juicy molluscs bathed in a hot-and-sour broth—were sold out. It’s an understandable reaction, given Adam Cliff’s deft touch in the kitchen and sensitivity towards layering and balancing ingredients in dishes that stun with their unapologetic spice levels and vibrancy of flavours. I’m hazarding a guess that more than one diner’s day was ruined when the young Aussie chef announced his departure from the JIA Group’s Hollywood Road restaurant in December last year with no clear indication of where he would be going.
The truth is, 18 months ago the seed for Samsen, the Wan Chai restaurant Adam opened in September, had already been planted. Adam and his partner (both personal and professional), Bella Kong, had been travelling to Thailand frequently, and during one trip he had a culinary epiphany. “I wish it was more romantic, but I was eating boat noodles on the street in Bangkok and suddenly thought that it would be great for Hong Kong,” laughs Adam. The noodle dish, so named because it was originally served from boats bobbing on Bangkok’s canals, is a hearty bowl of punchy broth enriched with, among many things, pig’s blood, fermented tofu and yellow beans into which thin rice noodles are placed. It’s a defining dish at Samsen, taking top billing on a menu that reads confidently with the likes of stir-fried glass noodles with fermented tofu, squid and prawns (“not for the faint-hearted”) and fried eggs with chilli jam.
After Adam’s epiphany, the pair set up Hawker Group and started the search for premises. It took some time to find the right space. After assessing what Adam says was at least 100 sites around the city, they ended up back at the modest location they saw first, a corner shop flanking Wan Chai’s historic Blue House and across the road from Stone Nullah Tavern. Cheerful tangerine-hued gates offer passers-by glimpses into the 35-seat restaurant, which benefits from an unusually lofty ceiling that gives the impression of an old-fashioned Hong Kong-style grocer. Cabinets hanging on the walls hold knick-knacks and books Adam collected during his years living in Bangkok; a collection of dog-eared Thai cookbooks sits proudly with tomes by the great British chef Fergus Henderson, one of his favourites. Tiled flooring, unfinished concrete walls and stout wooden stools create the right mix of hip and humble for a casual eatery where wine doesn’t even feature on the drinks list (though there is a very reasonable corkage fee).
Despite the restaurant’s low-key vibe, Adam’s tenure at Chachawan was always going to set up a high level of expectation. But with 14 years of cooking Thai food under his belt, Adam was not too concerned. “I’m not trying to wow people. I just like this food and I think that the general public now has the palate to enjoy it.” A lot of that has to do with how taste and knowledge have both evolved over the past decade, he adds. “Ten or 15 years ago, people could appreciate a pad thai and that was as brave as diners got,” he explains. “As time goes on and travelling gets cheaper, and it only costs you a thousand bucks to go to Bangkok for the weekend, people have become more familiar with genuine Thai cookery.”
"Ten or 15 years ago, people could appreciate a pad thai and that was as brave as diners got."—Adam Cliff
This development is part of the reason why Adam doesn’t hold back when it comes to the spicing of the food, staying honest to the spirit of the cuisine. “What we do here is balancing food, which the Thais have been doing ever since they were born. It took me years to crack the code of seasoning: how much sugar, chilli, vinegar to add.” In this sense, he is much like his compatriot and former employer David Thompson, the chef who blazed the trail for authentic Thai cookery on the international stage by never compromising on taste.
“I’ve been working on the wagyu beef boat noodles for about a year,” Adam reveals. “It took five completely different recipes, picking and choosing what elements I liked from each one and making sure they all worked with each other.” The broth itself is worthy of a deep study: Adam experimented, making it first with chicken bones (“too light, not enough sweetness”) and beef bones (“too pungent”) before settling on pork bones, which help achieve that slightly gelatinous soup base into which cinnamon, star anise, pandan leaves, galangal, garlic, fermented tofu, yellow beans, coriander and the all-important pig’s blood are added before it is simmered for two to three hours. It’s an expensive soup, generously loaded with braised beef, beef balls and beef slices, and is made fresh every day, as the chef doesn’t like keeping it overnight—it loses its pungency and aroma after being in the fridge, he explains.
"I’ve been working on the wagyu beef boat noodles for about a year. It took five completely different recipes, picking and choosing what elements I liked from each one and making sure they all worked with each other."—Adam Cliff
The noodles are also jet-fresh, being flown in from Bangkok each morning after his “noodle dealers” are done shopping in the markets. Of course, it would be easier to purchase rice noodles from the local grocer minutes away in Wan Chai, but to Adam there is a difference between the fantastic Chinese noodles found in Hong Kong and the Thai ones that incorporate more tapioca flour for their distinctive bounce and chew. “I’d love to make my own noodles, but I’m too busy making my own soup, to be honest,” he laughs. “It would be more out of passion than practicality.”
Samsen is a work in progress, with dishes being tweaked almost daily and Adam and his team working 16 to 17 hours a day to attain perfection, an effort that should be apparent on the palate. And one last thing: for optimum quality, Adam is only making 40 portions of wagyu beef boat noodles a day. Keep that in mind if you don’t want your day ruined.
Samsen, G/F, 68 Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai, +852 2234 0001