Duck tongues. You can go quackers over them at the newest addition to the Spice I Am family, Surry Hills Eating House. Barely a month old, it's opened up in the spot once occupied by Harry's Chilli Crab. Relax. Harry's hasn't closed down. They're moving a few doors up the road and tipped to open in October.
Surry Hills Eating House makes five eateries in total for head chef and co-owner Sujet Saenkham, joining House plus three Spice I Am restaurants spread across Darlinghurst, Surry Hills and Balmain. There's a focus on southern Thai food here, with Chinese and Malay influences shining through.
The refurbished dining room that was once Harry's Chilli Crab
The dining area has been completed refurbished, a calming oasis of timber furniture, flickering candles and caged light fittings that cast spindly shadows on the coffee coloured walls. Even though it's a Monday night, the place is full. It's a diverse group of diners that includes couples, groups of friends and even a posse of pensioners in one corner.
Thai milk ice tea $5
The menu is a single page of 25 dishes. There's no breaking up into entrees or proteins. It's just one big happy mix of dishes to share - prices range from $9 to $24.
Pak mor youan $9 for three
Steamed minced pork and spring onion wrapped in rice paper
While we wait for our food, the kitchen sends out a complimentary serve of the pak mor youan, little parcels of mince pork and spring onion bundled up in a freshly steamed sheet of rice noodle. There's a lovely textural contrast between the rubble of pork mince and the sexily smooth rice noodle, all doused in a puddle of sweet fish sauce dressing that has a bigger chilli hit than you'd expect.
Sen yai sai normai $9
Sauteed bamboo wrapped in flat rice noodle, steamed and served with chilli and soy vinegar and dried shrimp
The sen yai sai normai is a thicker rice noodle, wrapped around a filling of sauteed bamboo like an albino spring roll. This one is more salty than sweet, served on a lake of chilli soy vinegar with garnishes of dried shrimp, chilli and coriander.
Yum sam grob $16
Spicy salad of crispy cuttlefish, fried fish maw, roasted cashew, brown onion, cherry tomatoes and Chinese celery
Yum sam grob has echoes of a som tam papaya salad but there's a lot more crunch. Shards of crispy cuttlefish and golden puffs of fried fish maw add pep to a zingy salad of cherry tomatoes, cashew nuts and matchsticks of fresh Chinese celery.
Gai pae sa $18
Chinese Phuket steamed chicken with steamed water spinach
The gai pae sa or Chinese Phuket steamed chicken is highly reminiscent of Hainan chicken. The white poached chicken is served with the skin, liberally drenched in a dressing made from rice wine and ginger. A little tub of ginger sauce with chilli sits on the side for extra dipping.
Pla tod phae $12
Curried whitebait fritter served with house made sweet chilli sauce and crushed cashews
If it's crunch you're after, look no further. The pla tod phae or curried whitebait fritter is a snowball of deep fried deliciousness, a tangle of seasoned whitebait daubed with a sweet chilli sauce and sprinkled with cashews.
Pad ka lum lek $16
Stir fried brussels sprouts and Chinese sausage
Have you ever seen brussels sprouts on a Thai menu before? Never had I. Until now. The pad ka lum lek is a jumble of tofu, beans, cabbage and yes, brussels sprouts, swathed in a thick and spicy peanut sauce. The brussels sprouts work surprisingly well here, the compact brassica heads adding a little crunch among the spice. It's a great dish for a winter night, especially mopping up all that gravy with spoonfuls of fluffy white rice.
Gaeng het pho $24
Phuket-style curry of bar cod fillet, Thai black mushroom and betel leaf
I'm even more enamoured with the gaeng het pho or Phuket-style curry. The red curry base has an addictive sweetness that works particularly well with the delicate bar cod fillets. The Thai black mushrooms are the best part of the dish though, dark and shiny funghi that look more like pebbles or smooth black truffles.
They're known as hed tob mushrooms, and biting into one when the whole thing is in your mouth is mandatory. You'll feel an explosive pop that is likely to leave you laughing in shock. It's the strangest sensation, like mushroom TNT exploding in your mouth. Flavour-wise they're similar to a straw mushroom but their texture is much firmer, almost like a crunchy shiitake.
Kra Dook Moo Mai Fun $14
Slow cooked pork spare rib soup served with rice vermicelli noodle
The kra dook moo mai fun would be a great dish to have all on your own. It's a two-part affair: a conical bowl of pork spare ribs in a clear sweet soup versus a mountain of seasoned rice vermicelli noodles tossed through with fried shallots. Each is satisfying on its own, but alternating between the two makes them taste even better.
Lin Ped Pha Lo $24
Duck tongue simmered with five spice served with braised pickle, green mustard and nam som chilli vinegar
And then there's the lin ped pha lo or duck tongues. I've had duck tongues before deep-fried with salt and pepper, but here they've been simmered in a heady mix of five spice. There's not a lot of flesh on duck tongues - there's a soft bone that runs through the middle that you can eat, but there's a forked bone at the bone you'll have to extricate. The flesh itself is soft and slightly fatty, especially the tongue pad itself.
Sauce things up with the accompanying nam son chilli vinegar, and when the going gets too much, you can refresh your palate with pickles and stir fried preserved green mustard leaves.
Baked taro cake $10
with fried shallot and warm durian coconut milk
There are two just desserts on the menu. The baked taro cake may be a little daunting for some. Not only does it combine a sweet taro with deep fried red onion shallots (yes really), but you'll also cop a thickened coconut caramel mixed through with durian.
Once you get past the crazy idea of durian, onion and taro for dessert, this is a pretty darn tasty dish. The taro cake is warm and comforting, the shallots add a salty hit, and durian just makes everything intoxicatingly good.
Black sticky rice $10
with warm coconut cream
The black sticky rice is also a winner, the grains almost glassy in appearance with a distinctive chew. Savour each spoonful with warm coconut cream and fine ribbons of foi tong, delicate golden strands of sweetened egg yolk.
The flavours here feel more well-rounded overall, with mellower flavour profiles. It's no coincidence. "This the food I cook at home," Chef Saenkham says, when he stops by our table for a chat. "It's the food from my town. It's the food I grew up with."
Surry Hills Eating House
Level 1, 198-200 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills, Sydney (entrance on Campbell Street)
Tel: +61 (02) 9212 4092
Open daily 5.45pm til late
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8/27/2014 11:41:00 pm