48 Albion Street Surry Hills, NSW 2010
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between dining out in 2012 and 2013? The answer, it would seem, is about $10. No, not $10 more. $10 less. Or in the case of what was Assiette and is now Albion Street Kitchen, $9 less.
Last year, all main courses at Warren Turnbull's acclaimed restaurant were $39. Now that he has opened Albion Street Kitchen on the same site, main courses are all $30. All entrees are down $6 to $20, and all desserts are down $2 to $15. That's a saving of $17 a person, each meal. The plan to ramp down the dining experience is to make it, in Turnbull's words, less ''special occasion'', and more ''comfortable, relaxed and local''.
So the double linen tablecloths have gone, as have the classic white crockery and chic Fornasetti prints. Instead, the tables are marble-topped and the plates are earthy, dark-glazed ceramics. One wall is a flagrant indigo blue, and pale wooden window shutters give the room a cute, almost cottagey feel.
Turnbull and co-chef Grant Astle, last seen at Turnbull's District Dining before it became Mexico Food & Liquor, are going a bit less ''special occasion'' in the kitchen as well. Usually a price cut means a few layers of complexity carved out of the cooking. Here, it looks as if they have allowed themselves a few more layers of fun, judging by a tongue-in-cheek entree of cheese on toast ($20). The toast is lightly grilled house-made brioche, coated in an oozy blanket of melting 20-month matured Pyengana cheddar strewn with smoky nuggets of field mushroom, tipless spears of Peruvian asparagus, fresh truffle shavings, Pedro Ximenez sherry-marinated raisins, and sweet teardrops of onion soubise cream. It's deluxe dude food, as is a main course of macaroni terrine with grilled vegetables and parmesan cream, that is, mac and cheese. Using imported Peruvian asparagus once the local season has finished shows a lack of imagination, however - why not move on to something else local and seasonal?
There is a tendency here to stay with the status quo, and former Assiette regulars will find the busily pretty plating and several of the flavour combinations familiar. Ingredients du jour abound - yuzu, vadouvan, vincotto, farro, black garlic - so you still get to feel you're not just out dining, you're also updating. And with extras such as a cute loaf of fluff-ball milk bread arriving gratis, there's no sense of missing out on the finer things.
The requisite crudo dish is cured mahi mahi ($20), riched up with coconut cream and teamed with heirloom tomatoes and yuzu gel. Cone Bay barramundi ($30) is a late substitute for the excellent Chatham Island blue cod. It feels spongey by comparison but is saved by its spicy pan-roasted cauliflower, punched up with vadouvan, a Frenchified curry powder, and astringent dollops of tamarind gel.
There a warm, autumnal tone to a meat-centric dish of pinkly cooked New England lamb rump, carved over a ladleful of nutty farro grains and a tumble of wilted kale and some black garlic puree ($30).
The concise, contemporary wine list wanders from New Zealand to Australia, running to a velvety, lightly spicy 2008 Mandala ''Prophet'' Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley ($72) that divides its favours evenly between the lamb and the fish.
Desserts don't seem to be hugely different to those of Assiette, still arriving with all bells and whistles intact. A rich creamy log of honeycomb parfait ($15) gets even richer with the addition of fennel and burnt butter ice-creams; crunchy sails of ''white chocolate crack'' and a crush of hazelnut praline.
This is very much a story of the current dining climate, as restaurateurs scramble to find ways to keep us interested and engaged. It's also proof that a clever operator can shave prices (and profits) in return for more business turnover. Turnbull plans to move to New Zealand later in the year, leaving Astle in charge, along with manager Sera Kerr, whose informed service is one of the highlights of dining here.
In the meantime, the team is multitasking with the installation of its Tuesday-Friday, lunchtime-only Chur Burger tucked away behind the restaurant in Beauchamp Lane.
Queues for burgers, a packed house at Mexico Food & Liquor, and now Albion Street Kitchen as busy as hell. There are lessons here for the whole industry.
Best bit The simple $20/$30/$15 menu set-up.
Worst bit The front door sticks and is hard to open.
Go-to dish Cheese on toast, $20.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.