Bar H

80 Campbell Street Surry Hills, New South Wales 2010

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Opening hours Mon-Sat, 6pm-late; Sunday brunch, 10am-3pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Private dining, Degustation, Family friendly, Groups, Romance-first date, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating, Wheelchair access
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Hamish Ingham
Seats 50
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9280 1980

13/20

We all love a school fund-raising cookbook but it's getting out of hand. The latest to hit the circuit is from the Crown Street Public School. With Surry Hills being the centre of the known restaurant universe, asking a few of the local mums and dads for their favourite recipes resulted in a glossy book seething with big names such as Mark Best of Marque, Luke Nguyen of Red Lantern, Kylie Kwong of Billy Kwong and Alex Herbert of Bird Cow Fish.

It's going to make it hard for other public schools to beat that with auntie's chocolate peppermint slice; like trying to compete with the end-of-year school play from Beverly Hills High.

It has been a ridiculously busy year for the 'hood and I don't blame anyone for swearing under their breath about yet another Surry Hills review. Let's see, we've had Porteno (Argentinian), House (Isaan Thai), Berta (Italian) and Cotton Duck (contemporary) within months. Next up is Bar H, in what used to be Wall, a cracking little corner cafe that did good Genovese coffee.

H stands for Hamish Ingham, the former Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award winner and long-serving Billy Kwong head chef, who married front-of-house Rebecca Lines the day before opening, thereby condemning her to a life of servitude behind bars and on floors. In a nice way.

The new Mrs Ingham is also behind the look of the place. She's gone for a darkly inviting matt-black feel, with softly glowing amber lights, a feature-wall wine rack with bottles interspersed with cookbooks and chunky retro Bitossi ceramics in Rimini Blue and burnt orange, with hubby on show in the open kitchen. The old conversation pit had to go to make way for a planned basement bar but the dog-legged space and the wide grin of window open to the street remain. As does the Genovese coffee.

The Mediterranean-inclined menu, with its format of Oysters / To Start / Charcuterie / Salads / Fish & Meat / Cheese echoes that of the trend-setting Cumulus Inc in Melbourne. Here, the oysters are from Steven Feletti, the charcuterie includes jamon, prosciutto and organic chicken liver pate with shaved foie gras, and the four Fish & Meat mains include clams with chilli and braised fennel, and Coorong grain-fed beef rump with bone marrow and green beans.

The simplest starters work best at lunch, when madly nutty deep-fried artichokes with fennel aioli ($12) have a good Alice Waters/Chez Panisse seasonal logic to them; and Jean-Marc Amar's rose-coloured dried saucisson ($15) is topped with mustard fruits and grissini that taste of real bread instead of fried-breadcrumbs.

At night, something as simple as crumbed Ortiz anchovies with lemon ($10) isn't quite enough – the heat intensifying their inherent saltiness and leaving the mouth crying out for aioli or the fresh acidity of tomatoes. A summery dish of heirloom tomatoes and soft, almost sweet, home-made ricotta ($15) answers the call but the best dish is of meltingly soft pickled ox tongue ($16) with crisp, bright little breakfast radishes (the long ones), lemony horseradish and a zippy take on salsa verde. Both tongue and radish have been finely sliced lengthways to make the most of their natural shape; a small point that tells us the kitchen is thinking.

Service is bright without yet being fully together and the two-page wine list flits from new world to old with attention deficit disorder. "Current Sydney favourites," mutters my friend. But I'd be back for Nick Farr's luscious, spicy, juicy 2008 Farr Rising Pinot Noir, which at $80 is more than I like to pay but worth every cent.

A raggedly trimmed fillet of bass groper ($34) has been sensibly steamed, teamed with confit lemon, olive tapenade and braised lettuce. A topknot of deep-fried parsley adds snap but the dish feels overly wet; as does a heartier combo of whole deboned quail, pinkly-cooked chicken livers, wilted radicchio and juicy little bliss bombs of warmed grapes ($25), swamped a little by its thin broth. The liquidity trickles through to dessert; a deliciously simple but luxuriously rich bay leaf custard is topped with a spoonful of runny verjuice caramel ($10).

This isn't particularly original or skilful cooking but it's real, it's based on good ingredients and it isn't overly manipulated – more compilation than composition. The lack of "cheffiness" is probably dictated as much by the tiny kitchen as by the seasons and available skills. Bar H would make the locals stand up and shout for joy if it came to postcode 2230 or 2148 but in postcode 2010, it's just a good addition to the 'hood.

 tdurack@smh.com.au