Bloody Melbourne. Food-loving Sydneysiders, especially those of us secretly more than a little bit in love with the Victorian capital, freely admit that as fine a dining destination as our city is, it's a bit weak on the mid-range stuff. Dirt-cheap, fierily authentic north-eastern Thai food? Forget it, Melbourne, we've got it covered. Eye-popping waterside hot spots where the food is, egad, every bit as good as the view? Well, I'm sure the Yarra is just lovely at this time of year. But if I had a buck for every time someone asked me why we didn't have a Cumulus Inc or a Cicciolina, a Next Door Diner or a Yu-u, I'd have... nearly enough money to buy a main course in a Sydney restaurant.
But the times, friends, they are a-changin'. In recent months alone we've welcomed District Dining, a Randle Street offshoot of Warren Turnbull's consistently brilliant Restaurant Assiette; Duke, a smart new dude-food-focused bistro above the den of iniquity that is the raucous Flinders Hotel; Berta, the mid-priced Italian-ish gem of O Tama Carey; and not one but two very cool, very smart wine-bars-with-food in the form of Love, Tilly Devine in Darlinghurst and the Fratelli Paradiso boys' new venture in Paddington. Eathouse Diner has taken it to the streets of Redfern, Bloodwood is rocking Newtown, and the good people of Potts Point await the next turn of the screw for Lotus chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu with their Momofuku-alike Ms G's, due to open as we speak. Burn our boardies, dress us in black, pass the Aesop and call us Melburnians, I say.
And somewhere in the middle of it all, like the eye of the storm, just quietly doing its thing and doing it well, is Bar H. It's a bar in the Italian sense (lit. "tiny, tiny place to eat and drink"), not the thrown-cocktail-shaker sense, and the H stands for Hamish Ingham. Ingham has remained a Young Chef of Interest to the restaurant watchers of this town since he left the role he'd held for many years as the head of the Billy Kwong kitchen.
But there are no chopsticks or rice to be seen at Bar H. What Ingham has taken from Kylie Kwong's mentorship is a style that's more a sunny, Sydney sort of Cantonese approach to the freshness of ingredients on the plate than a strict adherence to the old soy and Shaoxing. Alice Waters is probably the other big influence here. Ingham worked as a stagiaire at Waters's seminal California restaurant, Chez Panisse, and Waters's books are among those slotted between the bottles on the wine rack that covers a section of the functionally fitted dining room's wall. Do you attribute the balance of sweetness and smoke in Ingham's dish of quail, chicken liver and radicchio to Kwong or Waters? The correct response here, as you savour the textural assonance of the pink-centred livers and the peeled grapes that accompany them, is to say, "Huh?" and then let your eyes roll back in your head with pleasure. It's the same with the surprisingly interesting sashimi of mulloway. There's a harmonious suite of flavours on the plate - soy, extra-virgin olive oil and background notes of orange and ginger - and the beetroot pickle chimes with the earthy quality of the farmed fish rather than fights it. It is just a little bit sublime.
I don't want to misrepresent Bar H here as one of those places where people get all tedious and over-swoony about the food. The eats are good, and consistently so, but the atmosphere is more of fun than of reverence. And thank god. Certainly the design and size of the place mean it's not exactly made for swoons. This corner site used to be Wall, the Sydney offshoot of the much-loved Melbourne café, and following its conversion to accommodate a real kitchen, it's still pretty poky. The shiny plastic stools at the bar and the lower versions in the window seats are, in a word, uncomfortable, and don't encourage you to linger. But then, it's not that sort of place. It's somewhere for you to eat (and eat well) and then be on your merry way. Thankfully the service is not at all of the ticking-clock school. Led by the unflappable Rebecca Lines (aka Mrs Hamish), it's witty and welcoming, and you can tell they're Hamish fans to a man and a woman.
Snacking is something the H excels in. If you're just dropping in for a glass of Albert Mann pinot blanc or Laurenz V Singing grüner, hit the anchovies - dense little Ortiz fish crumbed, fried crisp and plated with lemon. Or the Roman-ish fried artichokes with aïoli. Or the translucent slices of lardo and roast garlic on sourdough. Oysters and charcuterie are all as they should be: sourced with smarts, presented with care - the saucisson, from local sausage man Jean-Marc Amar, is a stand-out, as is the sweet chicken liver pâté decked out with curled shavings of foie gras and pickled cherries.
There have been moments when I've felt like I'm eating an awful lot of watercress and lemon, I have to say. But just when it's on the verge of getting to be too much, the next plate comes out with a completely different tack. The sirloin (100-day grain-fed, dry-aged, blah blah blah) is served sliced alongside a bone that's been cut to expose its marrow. There are a few green beans on the plate, but on the whole it packs a beefy wallop that all but cries out for, well, a bunch of watercress and lemon. And then there's the steamed Murray cod sauced with a black olive dressing - the dressing's the perfect fit for its Riverina funk in some ineffably Cantonese way.
Dessert is short and, yes, sweet. There's a tart made on short sweet pastry, its custard studded with Earl Grey-soaked prunes. There are the perfumed strawberries played off against goat's curd and aged balsamic vinegar with a touch of basil. And then there's the bay leaf custard, a crème caramel in the luxe school, a bit like the Sauternes one that heralds dessert up the road at Marque, only here flavours are of verjuice in the liquid caramel over the homely bay leaf-infused custard. All above reproach without suggesting sweets are particularly Ingham's favourite course.
As far as I can determine, "mid-price" means anything between not-woundingly-pricey and Laminex-table-bargainsville. Not exactly cheap but not exactly expensive is the idea, I think. As ever with these places where you're encouraged to share and where main courses don't really exist, the dishes can rack up quickly. At Bar H it's not because they're miserly so much as because they're very easy to eat. Slices of pickled ox tongue with breakfast radish and a nicely acidic salsa verde; a salad of raw zucchini, asparagus and soft-boiled egg; barely grilled cuttlefish loaded with broad beans and watercress. Ingham isn't trying to bowl you over with daringly outré combinations of ingredients or techniques downloaded like so many iPhone apps, and yet there's always enough of a twist there to keep it fresh. It's almost as if he's more interested in feeding you than showing off. It's a crazy gamble, but it might just work.
PHOTOGRAPHY CHRIS CHEN
This article is from the December 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.