It was one sentence in the SMH's Good Living liftout that sent my heart racing. Sujet Saenkham, one of the founding chefs of the legendary Spice I Am, was opening a new street food style Thai restaurant in Surry Hills. I emailed all of my friends, instantly receiving responses along the lines of "when are we going?" At the same time I was scouring the internet for any tidbit of information I could find, re-reading the only review I could find a good dozen times.
But my friends would have to wait. I was arranging a dinner with other people and we were wondering where to go. I mentioned House, and it was immediately agreed.
To say expectations were high on that first visit was an understatement. I was expecting it to be as good as Spice I Am, one of Sydney's best and most loved cheap eats.
But it didn't disappoint. There was a salted crab salad. Similar to a green papaya salad but with pieces of what appear to be uncooked soft shell crab, with the shell on. With a crunch, the taste of the sea explodes into your mouth. It's like being dumped by a wave at the beach; unexpected, salty, somewhat thrilling. This is followed up by the tangy, spicy, salty/sweet salad that returns balance before the next bite.
There was jaew bong, a pungent, extremely spicy paste made from fermented anchovies, shallots, garlic, chilli and a few other things. It's a taste I can't remember ever experiencing. It comes with some green beans, cucumbers, apple eggplant and bamboo shoots to alleviate the burn.
There were the chicken skewers. Similar to satay, but richer, a little more piquant.
There was the dried and then fried pork with the dipping sauce. Like eating the crunchy bits on your roast beef. And there was the soup, hiding huge chunks of galangal, ginger, chicken and other flavourings. While it was impossible to eat the chunks of roots, the flavour of the soup was outstanding.
There was the grilled chicken with a similar dipping sauce to the fried pork. Succulent and perfectly grilled. I'll never look at a Portuguese chicken the same way.
And then there was the BTS. It's not on the dessert menu, so they come over and explain it, almost too embarrassed to mention that it stands for Better Than Sex. The claim requires some investigation, but it certainly comes close. Pandang ice cream sits atop a huge cube of fried brioche and hides small slices of coconut flesh. Over the top is poured a palm sugar syrup and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. I don't know if this is authentic Thai, like the rest of the menu, but good lord it's a fantastic dessert. After the relentless heat of the chilli, the pandang ice cream soothes, while the toasted brioche, smothered in the palm sugar syrup, is one of those "so good I don't care how bad for me it is" things.
On the non-food side of things, at the moment House isn't as crowded as Spice I Am. It's less cramped in parts (as the restaurant is far bigger), and there are alcoholic drinks available, courtesy of the adjoining bar.
Not to let my friends miss the opportunity, we scheduled a visit a week later. Of course, I was only going because further research was required...
There were a couple of repeats from the last time--the grilled chicken, the jaew bong--but this time instead of the dried/fried pork, there was the dried/fried beef. A bit chewier, but still very moreish.
There was the mackerel paste that was similar to the jaew bong (but fishier, not as pleasingly pungent). Also missing the mark a little was the banana leaf curry. With so many intense dishes, the milder flavoured dishes just don't stack up as much. The duck larb suffers a similar fate.
But there's the discovery of the fermented sausage. There is also the deep fried fish with shallots, nuts and other things.
The normal green papaya salad is a little dull compared with the salted crab version, but the crispy anchovy version comes pretty close with the texture adding an element to the dish. The version with fermented noodles is also excellent.
Once again, the BTS follows. No one really has the room for dessert, but there are two of us that have had the BTS before, and we insist on it. We all have it, we all love it.
We leave stuffed, but pleased, endorphins surging through our body from the spice.
A few days later and an impromptu dinner. House is suggested and I don't argue. With around 50 items on the menu, there is still more to try.
There's the pork roll salad. Similar to the green papaya salad but with a processed pork meat similar to devon. Nice enough.
The fried/dried beef and pork has been done, but the grilled pork neck and marinated beef strips haven't. They're promptly ordered, along with the chicken skewers.
Again, the jaew bong is present. But this time it's so fiery it's almost unpalatable.
Again, we have no room. But, again, the BTS is to conclude the menu.
I'm loving House.
I'm loving that there are dishes here that I've never had before, and that I can't find anywhere else. Is it authentic? Is it a good interpretation of the classic dish? I don't know and I don't care.
I can't wait for summer when the courtyard calls my name with the promise of excellent Thai food and cold beers.
I avoided Spice I Am on occasions because if you didn't turn up at 6 you had to wait for a table, and even once you got in you were cramped and forced out as soon as you were finished.
House won't always be at such a comfortable level of patronage, but with food that won't please a lot of people (with conservative palates), I hold out hope that it will be there for a long time to come.
There's another jewel in the crown of Sydney Thai food.
RATING: Will constantly return to [?]