I was honoured to be invited to District for a tasting one quiet Wednesday evening. A friend who was leaving the restaurant asked me to check it out before his last day. What I hadn’t anticipated was being introduced to Hannah An- chef and owner of District. I sat at an open- style table (traditionally meant for family sharing but in modern times has become a great way to dine shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers alike), with a glass of wine and was accompanied by Chef An herself. We sat and talked about the concept of each restaurant under the An Dynasty with its Vietnamese influences paired with fresh local ingredients. The An Family has a well-rounded portfolio of restaurants, the first of which was opened by the renowned Helene An, and each one thereafter opened by one of the daughters, with Hanna being the mastermind behind the menu of each restaurant. And then she proceeded to tell me about District – what she didn’t tell me outright but I gathered by her passion was that this was her first solo gig. District is to represent the different neighbourhoods (districts) in Vietnam with distinct flavours, again complimented by fresh local California ingredients. Chef An asked me to sit back and enjoy the food she had selected for me.
The first dish that came out was a unique calamarie plate. If you are a fan of Singapore noodles this was a very similar flavor profile entangled in the fried batter. On top, a mixture of peppers both spicy and pickled. Admittedly I finished the entire plate.
Next I had the brussel sprouts. I was recently disappointed with the brussel sprouts I had elsewhere. These on the other hand were perfectly crispy and not dripping with oil. The very little oil that was used was infused with curry, with garlic and lime added after.
To round out the meal I had the signature noodles. That, and I’m a sucker for noodles. I can’t honestly say I’ve had Vietnamese noodles before other than that found in Pho, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The texture itself was great – not over cooked and not fried. And they were lightly coated in a citrus beurre blanc, and topped with bread crumbs. On top, a few beautiful prawns in a savoury pesto. My guess is the savoury pesto is intended to balance the sweetness of the beurre blanc. The thing is, I have mixed feelings about this dish because while I’m sure the spices were captured precisely, and the sweet-savoury combination complimented one another, I struggle with the sweetness. But … I’m not a connoisseur on Vietnamese noodles so perhaps it is up to me to look into this some more.
I was intrigued by the lemongrass crème brûlée – wow! The lemongrass adds an element of crispness to an already delicate dessert. The crème was perfectly cooked . My only request would be that the crème could have been taller since the sugar layer was quite thick.
The restaurant space itself is quite lavish. Valet parking only, with a double door entrance and glass curtain walls is very inviting. Each room has a very different purpose. The outdoor seating being much more casual contrasts the rather regal decor of the interior dining room. The upstairs dining room is quite a multipurpose area serving anything from an office meeting to an elegant wedding. And as I’m sure you’ve heard, District upholds the tradition of a second kitchen upstairs though I dared not ask whether this was a ‘secret’ kitchen as found in the other An restaurants.
I truly appreciate Chef An understands a good thing should not be messed with, and the traditional flavors were not muddled with any sense of ‘fusion’ we see so often these days. She commented that while her ingredients are purchased here in the US they emulate the ingredients grown in Vietnam. That all being said I do feel she is still playing it safe. The concepts are smart, and the dishes are beautiful but there is an element of boldness that is lacking. I hope as time goes on she takes a little more risk on the menu.