District is hard to classify, but hard to go wrong
LITTLENECK CLAMS In white ale broth, with pancetta and butter.
With the fall television season beginning, it is worth remembering the best TV show of the last decade: NBC's Las Vegas. Man, that show was good. The formula that made Las Vegas so satisfying can be applied to the running of a restaurant. District — a hard-to-characterize spot that opened last year, in that hard-to-define neighborhood between the Old Port and the West End — demonstrates some of the ways this might be done. What District has in common with Las Vegas is in fact not a formula so much as a lack of a formula.
Las Vegas was so good in large part because it did not care to be great. It used a loose setup — sort of The Love Boat set in a casino, adding a darker edge of greed and addiction — to mix genres freely and exploit a weird variety of stars (from the model Molly Sims to the legendary James Caan — both delightful) and guest stars. In a similar vein, District's defining quality is that it is hard to define. It is part cocktail bar, part American grill, and part nouveau-American. The service is formal in its particulars, but pleasantly casual in its vibe. For the most part District manages to hit all those notes and still pleasantly, quirkily cohere.
District has a slightly scrappy exterior of gray siding, but a dark and polished appearance within. Diners are led through the bar, and upstairs to a handsome enough dining room. An open kitchen adds a little noise, and not much ambience. The big front windows look out over some industrial buildings onto the Fore River meeting Casco Bay. It gives you the sense of being in a larger city, where restaurateurs seek cheaper rents in outer districts.
The menu is the sort of plastic-covered one-pager you see in a pub, but lists entrées of grilled meats that are a good step above pub fare, and several pastas. The leather-bound wine list is heavy on Italian stuff, and we found a nice affordable blend of merlot and sangiovese. The appetizers are an odd mix, ranging from chicken wings to foie gras. A tuna tartare served with toasted slices of baguette had enough shallot to push aside the fish's sweetness. Pine nuts added some nice texture. It came with a funny little sour apple salad spotted with lots of diced parsley. The better app was a big bowl of littleneck clams in a broth of white ale and plenty of butter. What made the dish were the many big salty chunks of pancetta. There was nearly as much pancetta as clam, and their different balance of tender and chewy gave the dish an appealing textural complexity. All the salt animated the broth, and made it great to soak up with big pieces of grilled bread.
A great-looking entrée of skirt steak with chimichurri sauce was perfectly prepared. The tender meat had a good char, and a rich flavor that mixed nicely with the dark bitter garlicky sauce. You can choose your side, and we tried the creamed spinach. It was pleasant in its classic simplicity. An entrée of roast pork tenderloin was equally good. The sweet meat had been cooked just enough inside, beneath a smoky, peppery exterior. The pork came with a spicy broccoli rabe, and a squash risotto that had plenty of cheese and was resonant with the flavor of sage.
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