We’d first dined at House, sister restaurant to Spice I Am, just after it opened in 2010 and having just returned from a summer holiday in Thailand and desperately missing the excellent cheap Thai street food, daily massages and generous cocktails, the Co-pilot and I together with our travel companions DanW and Katie booked ourselves in, eager to reminisce on Thai flavours and tropical holidays. We’re all avid fans of Isaan Thai flavours, the unapologetically pungent, robust spicy and often fishy flavours typical of north eastern Thailand and hearing that House specialised in Isaan Thai dishes made us all the more excited.
I recall that the menu had more than enough tasty, interesting temptations to keep us occupied and perusing back and forth, slowly deliberating on this dish or that. When time came to make our orders we listened as the waitress politely informed us that 1). it was recommended that we order a serving of rice per person 2). that it was $5 per serving and 3). the servings were about the size of a small mug. Pandemonium ensued and we independently erupted noisily with indignant disbelief. You see, the Co-pilot and I often joke about my mother’s love affair with rice and how disturbingly, every couple of weeks she requests our assistance in delivering her a bag of rice. Not one of those small 1 or 2kg supermarket bags, but a 25kg industrial bag of rice. “The dog eats most of it!”, she insists as we judged her rice guzzling habits with unbridled horror. The point of that story is that we know how much 25kg of rice is worth and for the 4 of us at House that day, how much rice $20 should buy you. We all (in retrospect unfairly) cross examined the poor waitress as she shifted around awkwardly trying to defend the price. The other dishes were ordered that night we felt were similarly miserly portioned, but to be fair our views might have been biased and tainted with small-rice-portion-affliction. We left that night more than a little disappointed and that was the last time any of our company dined at House.
Maybe we unfairly judged them, maybe they had an off night, or maybe they were still getting into the rhythm of their business – as time passed, we all found ourselves wanting to return and give them another chance. An opportune invitation to dine again at House thus proved irresistible. I was curious to see whether I’d unfairly judged or whether things had changed at House and I extended the invitation to the Co-pilot who immediately stated his desire to investigate the infamous “rice situation”.
Upon arrival we noticed that the layout was largely the same as we remembered, but now there was prominent use of chilli trees and lush Thai herb plants as hedging between dining areas. An excellent idea combining utilitarian landscaping and welcome privacy screens – and as the Co-pilot and I are thinking of re-designing our little backyard garden, it was food for thought that I duly noted. Given it was a warm and humid summer’s night, we chose a number of lighter dishes and erred heavily on salads.
We started with juicy grilled pieces of pork neck with just the right amount barbecue char flavour. The Jim-Jaew sauce is unexpected – not powerfully pungent, aromatic and spicy as I’ve come to expect of Isaan flavours, but relatively subtle, mildly spicy and more salty and sweet.
We were tempted to order our standard favourite Thai salad, the som tum or green papaya salad, but given there were so many tempting salad options on the menu, we decided a little bit of variation was warranted. The salad we chose was essentially som tum with anchovies. A texturally enhanced som tum! The anchovies were petrified fishy morsels that retained their crispiness despite being soaked in the garlic laden dressing.
The next two salads we ordered were very similar in flavour – not surprisingly as differed only in the main ingredient – pork and duck respectively. Spicy heat tempered with fresh herbs and the roasted rice adds extra grit and complexity to both flavour and texture. The overall saltiness begs for dumplings of the sticky rice to be dunked in the juice.
Speaking of which, we’d duly noted that side servings of rice, both jasmine and sticky rice, or noodles were still $5 a serve. We were however heartened to see that sticky rice servings were a wee bit more generous now. The one serving of rice was just a comfortable amount for the two of us.
Despite having read the description before I ordered the steamed curry chicken, I was still surprised to see the curry arrive in a tightly wrapped banana leaf, steamed solid into a parcel. The lemongrass and galangal flavours are aromatic, with the chilli giving it just enough perky heat but not quite enough to break out a chilli induced sweat. The solid steamed curry might not be synonymous with what many envisage with the term “curry” as coconut milk and gravy rich dishes aren’t common to Isaan Thai cuisine. Call me a ludite, but I personally prefer the thick viscous curries.
We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves and though the servings were probably still a bit smaller than I’d like for a “Best Bang for Buck” ambassador, the food was indeed very tasty. Perhaps that had been part of our own problem – we’d judged them by our unfair expectations. House have never themselves claimed their menu is cheap (relative to budget Chinatown standards say), an independent entertainment publication crowned them winners of “Best Bang for Buck”, which in my mind portrays not just value – but cheap. They’re certainly not expensive by any stretch, but as our total meal came to just over $40 per head it’s not your quick and dirty bang for buck dumpling joint either. Customer satisfaction 101: ensure the customer’s expectations are met.
Old demons slayed, House is back in our good books. Of course, had my mother been there (or for that matter, most of my Chinese-side family), she would have needed 2 servings of rice just for herself which still seems a pretty steep price to pay, but that’s just my rice-o-philic mum and hardly a normal scenario that the average diner needs to contend with. The dishes were different to what you’d find in the vast majority of Thai eateries around Sydney. Sure other Thai eateries offer som tums and larbs but most stick to the safety of milder Thai flavours. We didn’t order some of their most pungent offerings this time, but on the last occasion, we recalled having tried some of House’s Isaan specials – most memorably an incredibly smoky dip and polarisingly fishy fermented fish dip. Not flavours that everyone will gravitate towards but so bravely differentiated. That point of the meal marked a turning point for us. It’s applaudable that House provides a point of interest for diners in the Thai food scene. Sydney-siders are seeing more and more differentiation in Chinese cuisine, where once only bad Australianised Chinese takeaway food could be had, now Cantonese eateries sit alongside eateries specialising in food from Shanghai, Beijing, Xian Jiang, Hunan, Tian Jian Sze Chuan and more. It’s high time that we see more regional variation in Thai and for that matter, other cuisines – I’m sure Sydney palates could cope.
To finish our meal we perused the dessert and couldn’t quite go past the provocatively named, BTS dessert. A fluffy sweet toasted brioche adorned with a very tasty, strongly flavoured and utterly moreish pandan coconut gelato. The palm sugar used in the Thai caramel sauce gives it a much richer, more complex and slightly bittersweet flavour and deep brown colour compared to normal caramel sauce and goes nicely as a topping. So, the obvious question: was it better than sex? The Co-pilot and I looked at each other as I mused this question out loud. Our eyes met. There was a moment of awkwardness. “No” we both said in unison and with resolute clarity. And the unspoken rule of course is that you should not ask your spouse such a question in the first place.
.The Gourmet Forager and Co-pilot dined as guests of House.
202 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills NSW
Tel: +61 29280 0364; Open daily from 11:30 to late
Note: House is a cash-only establishment, no cards accepted; no BYO and no reservationsby