Saturday, January 22, 2011

All Stations to Central (aka District Dining, Surry Hills)...

A good thing happened to me the other day near Central Station. I know what you're thinking, and no: I didn't closely escape a mugging, manage to get spared the spasmodically random invective of a drunk, teetering hobo. I didn't narrowly miss hitting a pissed post-punk, poisonous pedestrian coming out of the Gaelic Club, or manage not to stack it on the Devonshire St Side Steps trying to race passed everyone else in my hapless havaianas. No, when I say a good thing happened, I don't mean just not-a-bad-thing, I mean a nice, yummy thing - finished with very-vanilla cream and fluffy-pink strawberry swirls. What the..? Central Station, you've changed, man! Well it had to happen sometime, and the time is now. All our slummy pre-conceptions about the vicinity around Central Station had better be on the move: District Dining is deliciously in town, and it's not even a drunk man's empty-beer-bottle throw away from Central Station. 
Tucked within the confines of the geometrically confused tangle of lanes that comprises the wedge around Randle St, District dining is a bit of a proverbial fish out of cheap-greasy-I-think-it-might-still-be-possibly-alive-kebab-sandwich-takeaway-cheap-sushi-8-dollar-steak-pub-food water. I would never put it passed the Surry Hills crowd to make slumming it chic, and that's probably why it's taken me about three weeks to get a sort of last minute-ish booking on a Friday night. District Dining! Don't you know who I am? A bloody hungry Lebanese girl who keeps hearing about how good your food is and can't get her social-calender together, that's who. With the soon-to-be-disappearing Tatsuit in hand, it was a 6.30 (had to be out by 8.15) Friday night dinner date.
The menu, a culinary grid of sorts, is your first sign that you're onto something different. It's a slap in the face to Descartes, convention and linear reasoning. Laid out, side by side, entrees, mains and desserts aren't really the focus. The lighter meals sit on the top horizontal line of the menu, and as you go down it gets heavier (kinda like my physique lately). Upside down, you know you turn me...inside out... The heaviest meals are at the bottom and you're advised to mix and match between rows. It sort of put me off in the beginning, I kept getting uncomfortable flashbacks to simple harmonic motion (specifically), 3 unit maths (generally), the parking station at Westfield Bondi Junction, Ikea furniture assembling instructions and Tetris (which I never really got the hang of). I persevered through confusion and resisted the urge to look at my waitress, point to my belly and say Fill This Now...
Because beyond space and time, lies the most important dimension of them all: flavour. Kervella goats curd, steak tartare, chicken nuggets w coleslaw, truffled pecorino, dill mayonnaise, green harissa and red onion compote, salted yoghurt, rockmelon sorbet, ricotta gnocchi, pumpkin hummus and honey feta, chicken liver parfait, crispy quail eggs, pork belly and pickled daikon and seared foie gras with peach chutney and pomegranate. Novel, curious combinations, a little bit classic with a lot new-wave. It's sort of traditional French-European-Modern-Australian-Mediterranean, on a skateboard. The smoked eel pate with cucumber and green onion flatbread is an amiable marriage of pale pink, muted-eel smooshiness, crisp bread and cool, calm and collected cucumber. The pate isn't too heavy, it is thick and textured and the eel doesn't come off as it often can: too overpoweringly oily. The crispy courgette flowers, a little too crumbed, shone over a creamy and rich goats curd with the very subtle sweetness of a faint truffled honey coming through. And then we entered the realms of pescetarian heaven: 
No, not the deep sea floor, but the wide open plate. Pescetarianism means I eat a hell of a lot of fish lately. I don't mind that at all, I love good fish. In fact, my alimentary canal is currently in talks with David Attenborough to do a new series: Blue Planet - Amanda's Bioluminescent Belly. I think there could be some undiscovered species rocking it out in there. Well, anyway. Into this inner ocean I was happy to welcome the Cone Bay Barramundi, Crushed Pea, Herbed Sourcream w Parmesan Crisp. Ooh, parmesan crisp! I'm always sold on the little things.
A succulent salty stunner, light and with the sweet-gentleness I only find in barramundi, blends perfectly with the pea, cream and crisp. The combination has a beautiful, dreamy moistness to it. The fish is salty and smooth and the peas add a shock of welcome green and some soft-roughness to the overall texture. Taking forkfulls of fish and swirling it into the herbed sourcream was wonderfully indulgent. It gave the fish a beautiful heaviness and flavour. The parmesan crisp was just plain fun to bite into. Kind of like pressing a red button that says don't press me.
Tats loved the Baby Snapper w King Crab, Sweetcorn Congee. So unusual and inspired! The Snapper was lovely, crisp where it should be and soft underneath. Its little coral-congee was even better. A soft, salty-warm bed of rice that gave much more nuance to the fish - and a faint, crunchy corn-spangled sweetness.
A gentle scattering of some black sesame seed rounds out the texture and the colour of this charming little fish. It is lighter than the barramundi and more playful for those of you who don't just expect dinner to fill you up, but to dazzle you while it does. The serving sizes of both fish were a little on the smaller side, that could be because I didn't pay attention to the menu-grid. They were only on the second last line. Jesus.
My humour has always been a little bit cheesy, and now my palate is joining in on the act. Without any say in the matter at all, Tats was informed that my dessert choices were the daily cheese selection and the strawberry + raspberry meringue 1 vanilla cream. After reading the cheese specials and having no clue what they were, I knew I had to have them: Brillat Savarin, Fourme Dambert, Pyengana. They sounded like the names of Parisian Madams with ample bosoms from the 19th Century, no way I was going to miss out on such eponymously ridiculous morsels.
CakeKnifeSirs, meet Madam B.S, a tantalizing tale in triple-triple-triple cream. Smooth and fresh and semi molten. You had to knife this beauty with all of the caution that a trembling hand could muster. If you tried to dislodge a sliver too quickly or heavy handedly, the blade would drown into a gorgeous inner-mooshiness that no pulling back could dislodge. It stuck to the knife like a hopeless man does to a bad idea. This was a beguiling, dreamy, milky mess of a cheese.
Gorgeous to daintily daub onto ephemeral slices of dry, crispy lavosh and wafer thin-fruit spiced bread. I painted the triple cream with scarlet smatterings of pithy, sweet quince jelly and just descended into an exasperated mania of smooth cream-crunch-sweet-rich splendour. 
Madam Fourme Dambert was a little sharp and a little blue, that day. But when you gave her a glistening shard of honeyed walnut to hold in her hand, why, she positively came alive. So powerful and mouldily luscious. Decadent and death-defying cheese. Just forget its mouldy and keep-a-munchin.
Cheeseplate ordering is a definitely a sign I am maturing. Maturing like a good cheese. I feel so bloody grown up ordering the cheese. It's the menu equivalent of a mortgage or a torrid affair. Edible Adultery. When I was a kid (last year) I could never really understand how one could possibly have had it within them to myopically eschew chocolate-sticky-toffeed slabs of glorious gum-gala to opt for something that wasn't sweet. But old age makes one wise, old age reveals that the pleasures of life are not only loud and intense - they can be subtle and demure, as well. Old age has taught me many things, it has taught me that I can have whatever the hell I want because I am paying. Don't put cheese in the way of cake, let them learn to live together, in harmony, in every dessert fantasy you ever had...
This is District Dining's Eaton-Messesque Thing. I decided to merely pine over the Chocolate Parfait w Banana Cream + Peanut Brittle. I decided to leave the Buttermilk Pannacotta w Spiced Peaches + Mint for another, sultry life. I decided now was not the time to bank on the Coconut Financier in White Chocolate Ice Cream + Caramelised Pineapple. No. 
It was time to Think Pink. Pretty in Pink. Pale and Tart and Shocking ScarletBlindPink. Beautiful ballerina in a cream tutu pirouetting pink! Ladies and Gentlemen, if someone made Barbie into a real person, murdered her, cremated her remains and dessertified them and put a raspberry on top, you would have this gorgeous, charming, dainty-painted Strawberries/Raspberries Meringue w Vanilla Cream. It's pleasant and pretty and perfect, it's like a girl in a bowl blushing furiously.
Amorphous sweetness floating in vanilla cream. This is a messy, cheerful bowl of every shade of pink and cream. Tart slabs of ragingly ruby-berry fruit are adrift in a thick, whipped-luscious-floating subconscious of vanilla-ed-crazy cream. It is tart and sweet and lively and vibrant. Delicious summer dessert. It dances and laughs and twinkles at you with all of the brightness of colour and youth. A wayward spoon delving into the white-pinkitypink knows not what it will come up against. Surprising turns of spoon revealed cream with a tart burst-shock in raspberry-red-cool-spurt. Others told a toothsome tale of meringue hide and seek: beautifully crunchy shards of breakable white like confectionary-fins-of-candied-sharks looming deep and deliciously dangerously within swirled-strawberried cream - all dying inside of your very own Jaws. Rose petals and the smeared trails of bloodied-berries in the snow. Beautiful and enigmatic - with not too much sweetness. The bowl was beautiful to get lost in and so uplifting to eye and mouth and being. So cheerful to taste and so refreshing to linger upon.
All of this gentle, vulnerable beauty - and remember...Central Station - just across the roadkill-speckled street! Oh yes. District Dining is a place to try at least once. It has some menu options that won't be found easily in other places. Don't believe me? Well you just try getting Veal Tongue, Pickled Turnip w Salsa Verde + Almonds at Maccas Drive Through, then.
District Dining happens at 17 Randle St, Surry Hills. Ph 9211 7798, Website here. Tea Tonic teas are surprising and excellent to spy on a Sydney menu (the Berry Green is beautiful). Organic Allpress coffee is up for grabs, as is a hole range of pleasant, liver-teasing plonk. 

District Dining and Central Station! The strawberry/meringue madness alone means you'd probably better make your ticket a return. Peace Out!

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