What can't you force, is hard to maintain and is hard to fake? Credibility. And even if you have it, it can quickly slip away if you get too popular. Sydneysiders can be a fickle crowd, always searching for the new thing. Bar H has oddly maintained its allure since it opened its door in 2010, despite numerous places opening in the formerly quiet part of Surry Hills. It's still on that pleasing level of expense, lower down the fine dining scale than the white tablecloth restaurants but classier than the mid-rangers.
Celebrity chef Hamish Ingham has now entered into The Woods, his newish and more mainstream restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel, and its neighbouring bar Grain down near Circular Quay. He hasn't moved on, he's just spending more time with his newer, brighter project.
Bar H is a dark but extremely welcoming place, perched on a corner formerly housing The Wall cafe, its windows looking out onto the quiet corner where Foster and Campbell streets meet. Inside, a modern take on Cantonese food is the name of the game. Ingham, as the oft-repeated story goes, served under Kylie Kwong at Billy Kwong before leaving for the US, only to return to Sydney as a chef for hire, moonlighting at Marque and Sean's Panoroma among others. While the food at The Woods has little obvious Asian influence, at Bar H the emphasis is definitely eastern.
The food is meant for sharing, from starters such as a sweet and delicate sashimi of tuna ($9), which is the best value on the menu, to a singular steam pork cha siu bau bun ($6.50 each) that staff instruct to deconstruct and push a sea parsley salad inside. Awkward and unnecessary but tasty, and the salad has fresh kick. The salt and Sichuan pepper calamari ($23) is a little disappointing, being moreish at first but samey after the first few bites. It's also a bit sad to see the wonderful pickled ox tongue off the menu, which was a favourite.
However, the Wessex pork belly hot pot in black bean, chilli, and thyme ($36) is a carmelised hit, as is the red-braised duck with muntires and pepperberries ($40). These two mains are admittedly very rich but are affluent in the right way — in texture and layers of taste. Add in Bar H's comprehensive and complementary wine list, and Ingham and co have conjured up a sweet and pleasingly jarring experience.
The strawberry and Sichuan ice cream with an odd partner on the plate of slightly sour goat's curd ($14) is the biggest surprise of two cuisines combining successfully. Judging by the buzzing atmosphere on a quiet Wednesday evening, Bar H is still in favour, and high in flavour. The biggest complement is the venue emits a warm glow long into the night.