Adam Cliff’s second outpost of Samsen continues to set the gold standard for Thai restaurants in Hong Kong.
There’s no question that Hongkongers love to debate about food: from where to hunt down the best dim sum, to which hole-in-the-wall serves the best wonton mee; the lavish hotel buffet most worth the weekend splurge, or the afternoon tea with the flakiest buttery scones. Yet ask someone for their list of Thai recommendations, and there’s one steadfast opinion: Samsen, the perpetually abuzz Wan Chai eatery opened by chef Adam Cliff and partner Bella Kong in 2016, is one of the city’s top purveyors of Thai food, and its signature Wagyu boat noodles, deep, dark, simmered for hours and complex with a bevy of spices, one of the city’s best Thai dishes.
Samsen in Sheung Wan, the second branch from the Chachawan alumnus, doesn’t serve any Wagyu boat noodles. And yet, the restaurant manages to outshine its sister eatery in many respects, from the variety on the menu to the full-service bar, the spacious layout and the atmospheric energy that courses through the open-fronted dining room. It even boasts its own signature dish, a beef-based khao soi curry, to rival the beloved boat noodles (we’ll leave it to you to decide which is better).
Sought-after designers Charlie & Rose have taken the familiar Samsen design DNA and let their imagination run wild — free of space constraints — at the Sheung Wan outpost, spinning the vintage shophouse-inspired decor into a sit-down restaurant that’s easily double the size in terms of square footage. Situated on Jervois Street, the restaurant benefits from the same breezy alfresco vibes with an open entrance framed by rickety wooden doors. Distressed concrete walls are painted in quirky shades of turquoise and sunshine yellow with rattan blinds, antique posters and pop art plastered across the walls.
Granite tabletops and wooden stools evoke the feel of dining street-side, complete with bottles of fiery homemade chilli sauce and colourful tin cans full of chopsticks, while touches like leafy green planters hanging from high ceilings and a long open bar and kitchen suffuse the space with warmth and conviviality. At Samsen Wan Chai, tables turn about a mile a minute and diners slurp down their noodles in 20 minutes tops with one eye on the snaking queue outside; at the new outpost, more space means group dinners are actually possible; you’re invited to relax and linger, enjoy a beverage or two, and make your way leisurely through the extended menu (whether there will still be a long line outside is yet to be seen).
Food & Drink
Traditional cooking and bold Thai flavours continue to inform the new menu, with Cliff tackling more classic Thai dishes while showing off a few new tricks up his sleeves. Off the bat, you’ll want to order a plate of Thai-style roti for the table (and perhaps two, three or four more servings after that). Fragrant with the scent of unleavened dough, the buttery flatbread (HK$38) arrives in two puffed-up triangles, the layers of pastry brushed in clarified butter for an unbeatable flakiness. The roti is cooked on a special griddle flown in from Thailand, with a crispy pock-marked exterior achieved by flipping the pastry back and forth on the searing hot surface until it crackles satisfyingly against the teeth. Alternating between crispy and chewy layers while leaving little greasy residue on the fingers, it is hands-down one of the best things we’ve tried in recent memory.
Tear into the flatbread then build your meal from there, choosing from the various curries, starters, salads and stir-fries on the menu to complement your spread. For swishing swaths of fresh roti, you may look to the spiced yellow curry of chicken and potatoes (HK$138), a hearty ensemble lightened with fried shallots and cucumber relish; or the fragrant smashed prawn & betel leaf curry (HK$148), with the incendiary heat of Thai chillies mollified by a splash of calamansi.
From the Wok section, you’ll find another suitable companion for the roti in the Wagyu beef with chilli, garlic and holy basil (HK$138), which arrives at our table crowned with a gloriously messy fried egg bearing a still-runny yolk and crisp, laced edges. The wok-tossed beef is soft and juicy, tenderised in a punchy marinade that bears some of the deep, hearty, chilli-laced, and beefy complexity that brings the famous boat noodles broth to life.
From the Wok section, loyal Samsen regulars will find familiar go-tos in the fried rice with crabmeat (plus a new version with Wagyu beef, tomatoes and chilli), the pad Thai with plump tiger prawns, and the classic pad see ew, with ribbons of translucent flat noodles tossed through with baby corn, chicken and scrambled egg in a sweet oyster sauce.
The menu also boasts a number of new sides and salads that keep the spread from feeling too curry-centric. We relished the grilled prawn skewers (HK$118), the succulent shrimp caramelised on a charcoal grill, then brushed with a robust marinade teeming with spices, with a subtle tropical sweetness imparted by coconut. A half wedge of calamansi and tangy pickled ginger provided a necessary jolt of acidity to cut through the richness of the spice marinade — although you may find yourself, like us, spooning up every last bit from the saucer on the side.
From the Salads section, the chopped duck larb (HK$118) is a hit, the quintessential Thai dish given a quick flash in the pan with garlic, coriander, spring onion and Thai basil, finished off with crunchy pork rinds and glutinous rice powder for texture. The mixture is shot through with lime juice and fish sauce, and a sprinkling of sugar — the result a study in the battling sensations of sweet and sour characteristic to Thai food. Other salads draw from the same pantry of spices, from the pounded papaya to grilled chicken and wing bean salad; while new starters exclusive to the location include grilled chicken satay, betel leaf wraps with coconut and prawn, red curry fish cakes and fried pork fritters.
The star attraction is the khao soi (HK$148), a luscious curried beef that’s meant to replace the boat noodles as the signature dish — the latter remaining exclusive to the original outpost. While khao soi anchored by a giant chicken leg used to pop up as a special from time to time in Wan Chai, Cliff swaps poultry for beef in this new signature offering, paired with a bucket load of spices, coconut milk and veggies.
Like the Wagyu boat noodles, the soup base extracts its complex flavour from an aromatic blend of tamarind, galangal, chilli, star anise and cinnamon. The meticulous care and precise calibration of the dish is impressive: coconut cream made in-house daily, a total of more than 12 herbs pounded into the curry paste, and the use of premium Australian beef a testament to the integrity of sourcing. Topped with crispy noodles and coriander, the northern Thai dish encapsulates the same richness of flavour and hypnotic complexity as its Wagyu boat noodles counterpart. Our only qualm? It’s a bit too heavy to be consumed as a soup: after a few bites, we were searching for a neutral partner such as plain rice or roti to act as a foil for the sauce, despite the presence of fresh egg noodles (flown in daily from Chiang Mai) swimming around the bowl.
Available at both locations, homemade ice creams (HK$68) remain a sensational way to end the meal: the Young Coconut Ice Cream is a perennial crowd-pleaser with toasted peanuts, fresh coconut and sweet corn; while the Thai Red Tea Ice Cream should be sold by the carton in supermarkets, as pure in flavour as it is silky smooth in texture. If you haven’t had enough roti by now, you can also opt for the flatbread in dessert form with bananas and condensed milk (HK$78, add HK$15 for Nutella or peanut butter). To wash it all down, those seeking a liquid meal (or a refreshing antidote to quell the sting of Thai chilies) can peruse the new bar offerings, with tropical tipples ranging from a lychee martini to a mint-packed mojito.
Despite its overwhelming success, Samsen has always been a limited operation, bounded by a small staff and finite space — but not, as is plainly evident, by the talents of its head chef. With this expanded location, Cliff is given license to flex his culinary muscles to their full strength, to paint a broader rainbow of flavours stemming from the culinary traditions of Northern Thailand, dive deeper into the Southeast Asian spice cabinet, and dish up superlative versions of the vibrant street food that’s famous around the world. A restaurant such as Samsen would be a shining star in any culinary capital; for now, we should count ourselves lucky that we have Cliff and Co all to ourselves.
Opening Hours: Tues–Sun, 6:30–11pm; Open for dinner only, with lunch operations at a later date.
Recommended Dishes: Coconut and prawn skewers, chopped duck & Thai herb salad, khao soi of curried beef, yellow curry with chicken and potatoes, wok-fried beef with holy basil, smashed prawn & betel leaf curry, homemade roti, ice creams.
Price: From HK$300–500 per person with drinks.
Noise Level: Suitable for a fun date or convivial group dining.
Service: Friendly and competent.