District Dining [Sydney]
Warren Turnbull (Assiette) continues a trend for top Sydney chefs to open casual restaurants to complement their premier restaurants. District Dining sits above a pub/hotel on the Surry Hills side of Central Station, it isn’t a natural area to head to for good food or even a good bar but with "House" just up the road, and El Buli around the corner, maybe it is on the up.
It is a interesting space with a great dark and atmospheric feel; there is a small bar plus a little terrace for pre-dinner drinks. We arrive about an hour early (as we had naively hoped to find somewhere reasonable for a drink before hand) and the maître d' welcomed us warmly; a good start as many places don’t cope well with early arrivals. He further impressed by fussing over us at the bar, recommending a fantastic Pinot from the Mossell Valley in France ($60), and then seating us quickly (despite our reservation being lost from their system).
The menu isn’t divided into starters and mains, instead it has a number of smaller and larger dishes to mix and match. We chose six which came as three two dish courses., and we start with some warm bread rolls and good olive oil. First up, “Crispy Quail Eggs, White Anchovies and Tarragon Mayonnaise” these are pretty good, although they could be slightly better if they were more like scotch eggs which are the rage in the the UK at the moment. This is teamed with a “Heirloom Tomato, Crispy Mojama, and Fennel Sorbet Salad” which was a real highlight, with every element working well together.
The next two dishes are a “Beetroot, Sumac, Salted Yoghurt and Basil” dish which again works very well with fresh interesting flavours. We team this with “Marinated Tuna, Wasabi Pannacotta, Soy Bean, and Ginger Marmalade” which is another star dish, the one criticism was the wasabi could have been a little more prominent.
Two larger dishes next with “Hiramasa Kingfish, Miso, Radish Salad and Eggplant” and a “Beef Cheek croquet, Chilli Eggplant, and Pickled Daikon” again two very fine dishes with great flavour profiles. Desserts are some cheese, a creamy Pont-l'Évêque, which is (like a lot of cheese in Australian restaurants) slightly over ripe with a hint of ammonia, and “Efi’s Rice Pudding and Cinnamon Ice Cream” the ice cream is wonderfully intense acting as a good counterfoil to the rice pudding.
Like many of these small plate restaurants the bill does mount up, our food costs came to $127 however it is superb value for cooking of this quality and we left completely stuffed. Total bill was $227 including the Pinot and a carafe of another French Pinot.
I highly recommend trying this place. The food is quintessentially Australian taking lots of influences from all sorts of cuisines and serving them up with a lot of style and imagination. The bar has definitely been raised in the mid-priced inner suburb dining scene - we can’t wait to return - this is up there with some of the better places we have tried over the last year.
Thought I'd give an update here, as this thread has been quiet for a while. Tried District Dining last night for the first time (having recently moved back to Sydney), and while it was an enjoyable meal, nothing was really outstanding or noteworthy. For two of us we ordered four small dishes and one large with a side, two different wines by the carafe, followed by dessert and coffee. Everything was good, but each dish seemed to have a little failure that detracted from its potential to be excellent.
What we had:
Crispy pig's ear with szechuan salt. This was battered and fried, and then cut into thin spaghetti strips. Porky and pleasingly chewy, though a bit too heavy on the salt.
Steak tartare, aioli, french fries, sourdough. Tartare itself was quite nice and one of the highlights of the meal overall. It was seasoned well and was a perfect portion to share. It was served with a bottle of Tabasco, which was a fun touch. My partner liked the extra splash of tabasco, where I thought it overwhelmed the taste of the meat too much. The french fries probably should have been left off the plate. They were quite greasy and tepid, like they had come out of the fryer 30 minutes before.
Kingfish, wasabi pannacotta, quinoa, ponzu. We were hoping the kingfish would be raw, but it came out seared. The quinoa was bland and added nothing. The wasabi pannacotta was so mild as to merely suggest wasabi. There was ponzu? This sounded like an exciting dish. It was not. At all. The flavours were really muted.
Seared scallops, jerusalem artichoke, crispy pancetta, prune. The scallops were superb, Two strips of crispy pancetta served alongside four scallops. The char on the scallops clearly came from searing in the pancetta fat. Very tasty. The jerusalem artichoke sauce it was sitting in was unremarkable, and even a distraction from the richness of the scallops. Two dabs of prune puree were hardly noticeable, or even identifiable as such.
Cone bay barramundi, celeriac, peas and bacon, sherry vinaigrette. Seared on top with a nice crust, but the bottom side wasn't cooked through (must have been under the grill?) and had a slightly icky gelatinous texture. In retrospect maybe we should have sent that back, but it was the end of the meal and we were pretty full by then. The peas tasted like they had a simple béchamel sauce. I was surprised to check the menu again and see that it was supposed to be celeriac. Again, flavours too subtle to be noticeable.
Anchovy and caper butter-tossed green beans. This was a side dish from the specials board. Tasty and fresh, but pretty conventional. The anchovy and caper came across as a just a slight salty glaze.
Mandarin brulée, cardamon, poached mandarin. The brulée itself was nice, with a zesty citrus flavour, but no sign of cardamom. Also, the poached mandarin was served in a separate jar that had to be unscrewed. Not sure what the mardarin sections were poached in, but they were absolutely tasteless. Another item that would have been better left off the plate.
Total bill, with wine and two espressos, came to just over $200.
I will say that the service was very good and I thought they did an excellent job of timing our dishes. It made for a very relaxed and pleasant meal. The atmosphere was nice-- quite dark, as PhilD noted-- but not too noisy despite all the hard surfaces. The presentation was also very nice, with everything made to look very appealing.
Overall, the meal was good but not great. I'd say the polish has come off, and the kitchen has perhaps fallen too much into routine. There's a nice range of options on the menu, but It felt as though things were on autopilot and no one has actually tasted what was coming out of the kitchen for a while. We decided that if we go back again, we would only order the small plates, as the large plate was disappointing and not a substantially larger serving.
Think District overall is a good experience at the price point.
Small tasting plates entrees and desserts are exellent, but (as with most restaurants in Sydney) the larger tasting plate (mains) fell short for me.
Definitely worth a repeat visit though, rice pudding dessert and scallop with congee were standouts.
I was strangely underwhelmed when I went opening week. Perhaps my expectations were too high or they had yet to figure out the kitchen. I will go back at some point, but in the meantime will keep enjoying enjoying Berta, Duke Bistro, Porteno, etc. Better ambiance, staff, & still f*&#ing yummy food. It's great to see the mid-range of Syd restaurants flourishing. Watch out Melbourne. 5 yrs from now, Sydney will own the Australian food scene...
I would recommend a return visit - we really had a great meal that stood out from others.
I think it can be a dangerous to try somewhere too early as it takes them time to settle in. In the UK lots of places do soft openings at discounted prices to get the kitchen up to speed. But if it is full freight on pricing it needs to deliver.
I agree on Porteno although I need to take care on ordering, on our last visit we had both the pork and lamb which was protein overload. We tried some of the fish to start and they are really worth it - counter intuitive in such a meat focussed place. Bad news is they are stopping Sunday lunches after Christmas as the brigade is getting too knackered (they may relaunch them next winter).
We need to try Berta and Duke - heading to Felix next week. Did try Flinders Inn and it was OK but not the wow I expected given the hype around the chef (it sort of mirrored my Lotus experience).
As a location, it does make sense - why take a taxi from Central to Surry Hills proper when you can easily get there from anywhere in the CBD (or indeed elsewhere). There are a lot of mid-priced hotels around Central and a potentially big captive market. Sounds like smart positioning to me.
BTW, is mojama ingredient of the year? I had it in Andalucia and now I seem to see it everywhere.