You’d have to try hard not to eat well in Sydney. There’s a reason Australians are generally cheerful. Silky coffee, made with callused hands. Spanking fresh seafood, eaten within spitting distance of the sand. Thai and Vietnamese dishes spicy enough to call forth childhood traumas. These are just some of the obvious assets. Surry Hills is probably the beating heart of Sydney’s culinary body. On this jaunt home to my motherland I was pleased to find one of the finest additions to the district is smack in the centre of it all.
District Dining is just across the road from Central Station – which is great if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch trains while you sip a cocktail. But if you merely applaud good food colonising what was once a pen of poker machines, or a spot that can couple casual with smart, you’ll probably like it too. District Dining is the baby sister restaurant of Assiette, run by Kiwi, Warren Turnbull.
The first time, I visited with my dad – a spry Australian who likes his bicycles made from carbon fibre and motorcycles painted British racing green. Once an architect, he respects the open plan dining area, large blackboards chalking the specials in neat script and the large windows that let in plenty of natural light.
This is the kind of place where you can choose your own adventure, whether small plates to share and battle with forks, or a more traditional matrix of starter/main/dessert.
This is also a place that respects its booze. This is good, since my pa is a sound man to drink wine with. He likes his pinot noirs somewhere between strident and cheeky. A charming Pike and Joyce is easy to spot on a wine list segmented into categories of “something that sparkles”, “something to sip” and “something red to dine with”.
Beyond an appreciation for red wine and the importance of carrying your own stuff, my parents imparted to me the importance of sharing. So we start with a communal pot of crispy school prawns (AUD $16). It’s a generous serving, which is good (I inherited more than just long toes from him; an ability to eat is another). We eat the shells and all, and the crustaceans’ spindly legs prick like embarrassment on their way down.
Another clear winner is a salad of veal tongue with a nippy salsa verde, cubes of pickled turnips and sautéed almonds. The tongue is burnished around the edges. It feels oddly kinky to be lolling the soft meat of another beast’s tongue around your mouth in front of your dad, yet with a glass of red under my belt, I care less.
Main courses are as elegant and rustic as the wooden boards on which many of them are served. Parmesan gnocchi with veal shoulder and pangrattato arrives as an essay in textures, with pillow soft parcels with threads of meat and strident little pieces of grit from the herbed breadcrumbs. And desserts are a marriage of whimsy and comfort; from sticky date puddings revamped with whiskey ice cream to a mandarin crème brûlée where a citrus that was once a lunch box staple becomes a sexy foil for custard, spiced with cardamom. It’s inspired stuff.
My second visit is at lunch, with ladies. District Dining is as bright during the day as it is moodily dark in the eve. Dad was right about the aspect.
We start with half a dozen crusted quail eggs with tarragon mayonnaise ($14). It’s best to eat these in one bite. Or to have a napkin draped down your front. Let it be known that an ejaculating runny yolk may be both tasty and funny, but it’s a pain to sponge out of silk.
The fact that I’m able to bully the ladies into trying five spice crispy pigs’ ears speaks volumes for both the skill of the kitchen and mine as a negotiator. “Pigs’ ears belong to the dogs” is one response. These appear twisted like stressed fingers. The inside of each strip has a chewy spine of cartilage and the outside is crisp like a prawn cracker and buzzes with the heat of Szechuan pepper. To which I say: if dogs are eating anything this good, then I want what they’re having.
A carrot salad is more of a sculpture than a plate of food, with thin strips waving across like a Gehry building. Beneath there’s a log of labna and a spiced nut crumble.
And for final sweets it’s lemon cheesecake with blueberries and lemon curd ice-cream. It’s grand – even more so in the daylight.
As you leave you’ll walk past a Mondrianesque graphic of the streets of the district by the door. My dad liked the artistry. The ladies liked their lunch. And I like what the image represents. District Dining is a shining addition to a city that already sparkles.
But it’s also popular. So if you can’t squeeze in when you want, take stock of where you are and wander through the rest of the district. You can always come back.
District Dining, 17 Randle Street, Surry Hills, NSW 2010. Tel. +61 2 9211 7798. Website.