The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry | A Sydney Food Blog

District Dining, Surry Hills

October 23rd, 2010  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  18 Comments

Imagine Sydney remapped as bright, intersecting blocks of reds, blues and yellows – Crown, Foveaux and Riley streets splicing into each other like in a Mondrian painting. This is what you see on entering District Dining in Surry Hills, and it’s a sign of the spectacle that will appear on your table.

Like the bird’s-eye city perspective at the bistro’s entrance, you’ll need an aerial view to take in each dish that arrives – sculptural scoops of yogurt, an installation of olive bread slices propped against stick-thin haloumi and heirloom tomato quarters.

Unlike the featured mural, the food doesn’t stick to Mondrian’s minimal three-colour spectrum – instead, it bursts through with bright and blushing shades – a swoop of harissa green here, or a burnt-sunset wedge of pumpkin there.

District Dining is a new venture for Warren Turnbull, head chef and owner of two-hatted Assiette. It’s meant to be a touch more casual, and it manages to feel more relaxed (without being overfriendly or sloppy) while staying sophisticated. It’s really likeable.

I’m going to admit, the first fine-dining restaurant I ever went to was Assiette in 2005, and I revisited it again in 2007. The food, in both cases, was exceptional – I wanted to snap-freeze the memory of every thing I ate on both occasions, especially the Mille Feuille of Passionfruit Cream and Tropical Fruit Salad and the Lime Panna Cotta with Orange Sherbert and Orange Caviar. The only cold note was the service, which was noticeably frosty on both occasions, and in fact, it left me assuming all waiters had a default-snooty attitude to young diners – until I went to places like Bentley and Oscillate Wildly, where the service is so inviting and un-judgmental about your bank balance. As much as I liked the food at Assiette, the wait staff left me feeling like we weren’t quite as welcome as, say, investment bankers. So I’m happy to note that District Dining hasn’t inherited this attitude – the service is much warmer and friendlier.

And the food, too, is high-grade – each dish has a touch of magic (without the buzz-killing pricetag that can accompany this quality of dining). There are mains – such as the Hopkins River Sirloin, teamed with a lively smear of green harissa and a small copperpot of kipfler potatoes, all fat-glossed and cooked through with caramelised onions ($24) – and plates to share. There’s a dish of gold and purple-bright Beetroot, served with sumac-sprinkled clouds of salted yogurt and gorgeously roasted nuts ($14). There’s also Spiced Pumpkin with marinated feta ($14), and, because there aren’t many vegetarian options*, I have the Heirloom Tomato Salad without the mojama ($16), which is fine, as the the gold-crunch haloumi, toasted thin slices of olive bread and full-flavoured heirloom tomatoes are enough to keep me happy. Besides, from the first menu glance, I was really staking out for dessert.

Will claimed the Coffee Brulee with Chocolate Madeleine ($12), and after much sizing up of the remaining options – the equally dreamy sounding Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Blood Orange and Granita ($12), Meringue with Strawberries, Raspberries and Cream ($12) and Efi’s Rice Pudding with Cinnamon Ice Cream ($12) – I went with the meringue thanks to the advice of our good waiter, Lindsay (who also multi-tasks as restaurant manager, sommelier and inhouse Twitter expert – by the end of our lunch, chef/owner Warren Turnbull was ready to dispense 140-word updates on District Dining.)

The meringue is completely endorsement-worthy – Lindsay is right. It’s a wonderful take on Eton mess; a gorgeous scoop of raspberry sorbet crowns strawberries, cream, sweet ripples of fruit and surprise chunks of meringue. A new favourite dessert.

The design of District Dining is also an achievement – only six weeks ago, it was a gaming lounge (designed by Burley Katon Halliday!); its high-speed transformation into a welcoming, wood-panelled space is something of a wonder.

When Will and I had lunch there today, we really had the entire place to ourselves. It’s a temporary luxury, we know, because District Dining only opened earlier this week and, for now, has stayed a scaled-down secret. The place will undoubtedly crowd up quickly, because a bistro with a likeable menu, good prices, breezy atmosphere and a location only footsteps away from Central Station (or, more dangerously, a well-known karaoke joint) is not going to stay unknown for long in Sydney.

*If you ask, the chef may be able to offer other off-menu vegetarian options

17 Randle Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW (02) 9211 7798,

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  1. cm says:

    inspired! Booked for next friday

  2. Justine says:

    This looks and sounds amazing. I can’t wait to go!

  3. Monica ^o^ says:

    a new venture by malcolm turnbull, hooray ! Assiette is still one of my favourite restaurant so must pay a visit here very soon 🙂

  4. wow beautiful photos dude and love the look of that meringue

  5. I was just about to splurge on a celebration meal at Assiette. However, I hate stuffy service and waiters looking down on the meagre size of my wallet so I might give this place a try instead.

  6. leetranlam says:

    Thanks for your comment Richard. My service experiences at Assiette were from a while ago – so it’s likely the experience could be quite different now; having been to District Dining much more recently though, & the service was definitely friendly and un-stuffy, I can definitely endorse it and say it’s worth giving a go (especially when it’s still a bit unknown)!

  7. leetranlam says:

    Thanks for your kind comments CM, Justine, Monica & Chocolate Suze! I hope you guys equally enjoy it when you try it out. Thanks for your nice words about the pics, CS, they were courtesy of Will & the beautiful light that was streaming through the window (before those rainclouds appeared and made it such a soggy day)!

  8. OohLookBel says:

    This place looks awesome. I went to Assiette a few weeks ago and that was good, too.

  9. Wow – they opened quick smart. Looks great – can’t wait to go

  10. Assiette was my first degustation too, and it still ranks up there with the best, so I am very intrigued by the chef’s new venture. Great review!

  11. Jobe says:

    What sounded good in theory looks like good in reality too. Can’t wait to go here much sooner rather than later.

    For the person saying they were going to give Assiette a miss: don’t. The service is fine. The food is excellent.

  12. Madam Wu says:

    That pumpkin with a trendy smear of harissa looked wonderful. It’s funny how presentation has gone from height to just chucking it all on the plate in a flat but delicately arranged fashion!

  13. trisha says:

    Ohh I want to go just for the meringue. Do you think they’d be ok with a couple of friends turning up for dessert and a glass of wine?

    I’ve never done this before but always wanted to at some nice restaurant. I can’t really afford an entire meal but dessert I could do.

  14. Rob says:

    I went to District Dining for dinner Tuesday night.

    It’s still quiet but I think that once the word gets out this place will soon pack out!

    The food was delicious, I especially liked the pork belly with kim chi and the beetroot salad with salted yogurt. I had the meringue for dessert and was not disappointed.

    The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable. I’m looking forward to going back.

  15. Sounds great! Another place to add to my never ending list! Thanks for your review!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Went there on Sat for lunch and absolutely loved it! Amazing food, great service and ambiance. Definitely worth checking out for all you, foodies out there. Strongly recommend the spiced pumpkin and corn fritters.

  17. The food looks amazing!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Assiette is one of my favourite restaurants in Sydney. If not the favourite. I’m always surprised to hear when people say they have encountered rude wait staff. On all the occasions I have been there, we’ve always been treated very well. Or maybe the delicious food makes me not notice! Can’t wait to try District Dining, been wanting to go here since it opened… BTW love your blog

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Hi, I'm Lee Tran Lam. When not blogging with my mouth full, I'm usually writing, presenting Local Fidelity on FBi radio, making zines, producing podcasts or continually breaking promises about how I really am gonna get through my book pile one day.

All the good pictures on this blog are by photography ace (and patient boyfriend), Will Reichelt, (all the dodgy ones can be credited to me)!

The lovely banner is by friend and ultra-talented illustrator Grace Lee.

This site redesign was made possible by the next-level generosity and expertise of Daniel Boud, whose code-tinkering ways are only outranked by his seriously inspired way with a camera.

You can read more about my co-conspirators here.

This is a blog I do for pure fun and zero influence – there's no sponsorship, sneaky advertorial or advertising. I pay for all the food mentioned, 'cos it seems the ethical thing to do.


This is a blog about eating and drinking in Sydney, Australia (with the odd cross-border or off-topic detour). BYO appetite.

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