Surry Hills Eating House

Terry Durack
Pungent: The menu at Surry Hills Eating House is drawn from southern Thailand.
Pungent: The menu at Surry Hills Eating House is drawn from southern Thailand. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Level 2, 198-200 Elizabeth Street Surry Hills, New South Wales 2010

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Opening hours Dinner daily, 5.45pm-10.30pm (lunches pending)
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Pub dining
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Sujet Saenkham
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9212 4092

Tom yam goong, pad Thai, green chicken curry. I used to be convinced there was one big secret commissary kitchen that supplied all Thai restaurants in Sydney with the same handful of dishes.

Now, our Thai chefs are spreading their wings and exploring the regions and many border crossings of Thailand, and we can dine on kanom jeen rice noodles from the south one day, and sour little fermented pork sausages from the north the next.

One of the prime movers behind this regional deconstruction is chef Sujet Saenkham, who founded the insanely popular Spice I Am in Surry Hills in 2004. In 2010, he focused on the incendiary street food of Thailand's north-east at House, in the beer garden of Surry Hills' Triple Ace Bar. Now, he and partner Padet Nagsalab have moved inside the pub, taking over what was the longstanding Harry's Singapore Chilli Crab and dubbing it the Surry Hills Eating House.

The kanom jeen noodle and curry set.
The kanom jeen noodle and curry set. Photo: Cole Bennetts

This time, the menu is drawn from southern Thailand and its Chinese and Indian/Malay influences. Cheat sheet: hot, spicy, sour, pungent, turmeric, curry, roti, coconut milk and lots of raw, fresh and pickled vegetables. Got that? Then let's go: through the '80s bar, past the pokies, and up the stairs into a darkly painted, wood-floored, arch-windowed dining room, with its mix of wooden benches, bistro chairs, high stools and glossy wooden tables set with flickering battery-operated candles.

Unless you know your Thai, I suggest a strategy of blind finger-stabbing. Aim your pinky towards the pak mor youan ($9) - rubbly minced beef encased in the slitheriest, stretchiest, stickiest, steamed rice roll; instant craving material. Aim also for gaeng het pho ($24), a classy Phuket-style curry of beautiful bar cod and unusually crunchy, truffle-like Thai black mushrooms (hed tob). And if you like Singapore's Hainan chicken, go for gai pae sa ($18), a pimped-up rendering of lightly steamed chicken in a ginger rice wine sauce with a snappy chilli ginger dip. Totally delicious.

There's a strange - to me, anyway - salad of cuttlefish crisps, deep-fried fish maw (bladder), raw onion, cherry tomatoes, skinny Chinese celery and chilli ($16) that doesn't feel quite together. But the siggy dish has to be the Phuket-style kanom jeem set ($16): a wicker basket of skeins of thin, white, fermented rice noodles, a platter of herbs, pickles and vegetables, and two lovely bowls of curry sauces - one, a nutty, satay-like nam prik; the other a spicy, rich, creamy nam yah of ground flathead. This is action food, boys and girls, so put some noodles in your bowl, add some crunchy, sliced snake bean, cucumber, bean sprouts or banana blossom, spoon on the curry, and we'll all have fun.

Gai pae sa, steamed chicken with water spinach and ginger rice.
Gai pae sa, steamed chicken with water spinach and ginger rice. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Prices overall are non-greedy, from $18 for the slow-cooked beef curry with roti bread to $10 for the sweet-salty hit of cassava cake with coconut cream, and wines are all under $50. Drinks are pub-style, requiring a trip to the service bar for a cocktail or a serviceable stone-fruit-and-citrus Silverwood Mornington chardonnay ($40) from the short list of 10 wines.

This cooking feels personal - many of the recipes are family ones, and greens such as water spinach (morning glory) and kaffir lime leaves come from the owners' Kangaroo Valley farm. But it's Saenkham's particular talent for making every dish jump with that pinball thwack/ping clashing balance of Thai sweet, hot, sour and how's-your-father that makes this so compelling - and so much more rewarding than that central commissary kitchen.

Best bit:
Regional take on Thai.
Worst bit: Pub-style drinks service.
Go-to dish: Kanom jeen noodle and curry set, $16.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.