It's a sardine tin!
Words cannot describe my giddy excitement when I spot the sardine tin with "District Dining" printed on the sticker on its side. It's the kind of excitement reminiscent of your six-year-old self on Christmas morning, a sense of wonderment and joy that greets the arrival of each dish during our weekend lunch at District Dining.
District Dining is the latest venture by Warren Turnbull, a modern bistro that offers a more casual approach to food than his two-hatted restaurant Assiette. A rapid renovation has created a bright and airy space, warm with wood-panelled walls, and plenty of light streaming in through the large windows. The old carpet was ripped up and replaced with timber flooring, and huge blackboards chalked with specials add to the cosy bistro feel.
District Dining has only been open for three weeks and we find it pleasantly quiet for a Saturday lunch. One dad is having a late breakfast with his young toddler daughter, a small group of friends have gathered for lunch and I also happen to bump into John, who has secured a sun-drenched table with Mr K by the window.
The Lido bar area with large windows, plants and a view over Chalmers Street
Allpress flat white $4
We start with drinks whilst we wait for everyone to arrive. The coffee here is Allpress which I find smooth but a little mild on this occasion.
Angel wing tongs and sugar cubes
It's K who notices the tongs in the sugar bowl first, a set of tongs with angel wings that provide a preview of the playful plating to come.
King crab sweet corn fritters with basil $14
Chopping boards will prove to be a common feature, the first bearing a crumple of brown paper that holds a tumble of King crab sweet corn fritters, deep-fried until golden.
Charcuterie platter $35
[clockwise from bottom]: Salami tartufo, petite fuet, jamon serrano,
wagyu bresaola and fuet anis
There's a loud chorus of oohs when our charcuterie platter arrives, a buffet of wafer-thin shavings of smallgoods served with a tiny bowl of piccalilli. We alternate slices of jamon serrano and wagyu bresaola with nibbles of pickled onion, carrot and cauliflower. Fuet is a dry-cured Spanish pork sausage, and we savour both the fuet anis and the petite fuet, the latter reminding me of lap cheong dried Chinese pork sausage without the sweetness. Salami tartufo comes with lovely specks of truffle that add a subtle enhancement.
Crispy school prawns with lime aioli $15
Crispy school prawns, a blackboard special, prove to be a generous serving. It's just as well, as our group of eight demolish these with ferocity. Doused with lemon juice and dipped in lime aioli, we crunch these down shell and all, revelling in their freshness and intense prawn flavour.
Pork belly with fennel salt, lime and kimchi $24
Our dishes have been split up into courses of three, suiting both the kitchen and, happily enough, our production line of assistants who maneouvre dishes down the table so each can be photographed.
Round Two brings us pork belly, two thick slabs of fat-ribboned pork that melts in the mouth, topped with a tile of crisp pork crackling. A mound of kimchee provides a Korean touch to this dish, lengths of chilli pickled Chinese cabbage that pack some punch and offset the richness of the pork.
Veal tongue, pickled turnip, salsa verde and almonds $16
I almost feel obliged to break out into a round of applause when the veal tongue arrives, an exquisitely plated dish that marries colour with elegance. A slick of vivid green salsa verde carries a tide of veal tongue, pickled carrot, and baby turnips in candy pink. The veal tongue, seared to a gentle crisp on one side, is soft and tender. This is easily my favourite dish of the day.
Heirloom tomato, mojama, haloumi and pickled red onion $16
A salad of heirloom tomatoes offers a vibrant mix of hues, the sweetness of the tomatoes contrasted--and perhaps slightly overwhelmed--by straws of pan-fried haloumi, shards of toasted olive bread and wisps of mojama salt-cured tuna.
Crispy fried chicken with coleslaw and lime aioli $24
Deciding on our dishes to share had been a collaborative effort, and I'm relieved I wasn't the only person to feel their eyes drawn to the promise of crispy fried chicken.
Crispy fried chicken
The chicken is not the Southern-fried chicken on the bone I'd been hopefully anticipating, but fillets of chicken coated in batter and fried. Even though the chicken is juicy and succulent, I'd been quite looking forward to eating chicken on the bone. I find the coleslaw is more of a cabbage in vinaigrette than a mayonnaise-fest too, although we do cluck over its presentation in a miniature paella pan.
Smoked eel pate with cucumber and green onion flatbread $16
The aforementioned sardine tin holds the smoked eel pate, a smooth paste that is deliciously smoky and buttery with eel. The green onion flatbread is smothered in salsa verde, perhaps a little too much, as I find this detracts from the eel pate that deserves the spotlight on its own.
Riverine premium sirloin with green harissa and kipfler potato $28
Riverine premium sirloin is cooked to mouthwatering perfection, the plump fillet served on a puddle of deceptively spicy green harissa. A petite copper pot hides a serving of kipler potatoes.
Pork brawn with piccalilli and green onion flatbread $16
The pork brawn, our waiter explains, comes from a pigs head that has been boiled, picked and then covered in aspic. A pathway of piccalilli is impeccably straight, leading us to presume a rectangular mold was used to create such defined edges. The brawn offers up a range of pork textures, and the salsa verde-basted flatbread seems to work better here.
What happened to the pork skin? Pig Flyin' asks. It's gone to heaven, we're told with a laugh.
WA scampi cannelloni with tomato, asparagus and coriander $20
We find a bonanza of sweet and tender whole scampi rolled into the log of cannelloni, surrounded by a medley of cherry tomatoes, asparagus and baby coriander leaves.
Seared scallops with cauliflower, raisin and dukkah $18
Towers of barely-seared scallops rise from the next plate, served with the silkiest mounds of cauliflower puree and dabs of sweet and sticky raisin sauce. My only quibble is the dukkah, a rubble of sesame seeds, hazelnut and spices that instantly lodge themselves between my teeth, and seems to interfere with the delicate texture and flavour of the scallop.
Castricum lamb shoulder with cumin, honey and baby carrots $24
We finish with Castricum lamb shoulder, another triumph of slow cooking that results in incredible tenderness. Three cumin-dusted carrots perch on top, scattered with toasted pinenuts, but it's the saffron-coloured carrot puree that steals the show, silkier than your sexiest negligee.
The beauty of dining in a large group is the power to order one of everything on the dessert menu. This is relatively feasible at District Dining where only four desserts are on offer, but we do pass up the offer of cheese, even though the cheese collection does look rather intriguing.
Efi's rice pudding with cinnamon ice cream $12
A glass jar of creamy rice pudding is the kind of dessert you want to curl up on the lounge to leisurely eat with a small spoon. Cinnamon ice cream is a clever accompaniment although it's a bit of a challenge trying to eat all the ice cream before it melts all over the chopping board.
Buttermilk pannacotta with blood orange granita $12
A wide-mouthed preserves jar is the serving piece for a firm buttermilk pannacotta. It's topped with a blood orange granita that is bittersweet, icy and refreshing.
Coffee brulee with chocolate madeleine $12
A series of determined taps are required to break through the layer of toffee protecting a smooth and satiny coffee brulee. Plated to one side are two clam shells of chocolate madeleines that are soft and moist. Our group is so enamoured by the pannacotta and the coffee brulee that we order another one of each immediately.
Strawberries, raspberries, meringue and vanilla cream $12
But I'm secretly in love with the strawberries, raspberries, meringue and vanilla cream, Warren's version of the classic Eton Mess. Freeze-dried raspberries cavort with fresh strawberries in a lip-smacking glory of raspberry sorbet, crumbled meringue and pillowy depths of whipped cream.
The Mondrian-style mural at the entrance is not just a welcome splash of colour on the street, but also offers a useful navigation tool when we map our next port of call - Bourke Street Bakery.
I like how the aerial map creates a fun approach to viewing Surry Hills that makes us want to explore even more. We feel the same way about District Dining's approach to food.
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17 Randle Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9211 7798
Tuesday to Thursday 12pm-3pm and 6pm-11pm
Saturday 12pm-3pm and 6pm-11pm
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11/08/2010 12:48:00 am