A new American restaurant with reach
District Kitchen stretches the mold
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012
Most new American restaurants are playing it so farm-to-table safe these days that even a casual diner can predict what will be on the menu.
A category called "snacks" will kick off the possibilities, and among the choices will be nuts, cheese and sausage. Chicken liver will make a cameo, as will steamed mussels. As for bread, well, there won't be any, at least not in a basket. Gratis bread is disappearing faster than polar ice caps.
District Kitchen, which opened in January with Drew Trautmann in the kitchen and Jawad Saadaoui in the front of the house, follows that much-performed script. With its bare light bulbs and brick walls, the restaurant even dresses like a lot of recent arrivals. At the same time, however, District Kitchen maps its own world. Where I would have predicted squash soup as a special, Trautmann delivers celery root pureed with peanuts, and the wine program features premium grape juice in stainless steel kegs (nitrogen keeps the two reds and two whites from spoiling).
Get some mixed nuts to go along with the drinks, some of the best libations on Woodley Park's restaurant row. Yes, the snack is everywhere, but this restaurant's cupful of toasted, buttery and cayenne-spiked nuts makes a fine companion to the Gist created from bourbon, Cointreau, lemon juice and maple syrup. Deviled ham, pretty in pink, makes a nice spread for toast points. The kitchen also tosses some pleasing salads, including wild cress and arugula with black walnuts and dried apples.
Among the intriguing small plates are zesty sausage meatballs made with ground duck, liver and rice, crisp from their roll in bread crumbs and served with a house-made onion ketchup that could use more spunk; and pleasantly chewy cords of pasta topped with chunks of tender, sweetly spiced lamb and a dusting of goat milk cheddar. The latter, says Trautmann, is a shout-out to his former home, Cincinnati, and its famous Skyline Chili brand.
I have a soft spot for eggs for dinner and thus welcome the hash whipped up from fleshy mushrooms, roasted fingerling potatoes and a shirred (baked) egg. Rosemary winds through the piping hot dish, giving it just the right thrust.
There are a mere eight entrees, but plenty to admire among them. The day's catch (likely rockfish) comes as I prefer, head and tail attached, and bright with lemon and thyme in its seasoning. Duck leg confit is a two-part pleasure, its crackling skin giving way to succulent meat. Its roasted baby turnips are dull compared to the carrot jus on the plate. Chicken a la king in a restaurant? Pulled chicken moistened with a roux-thickened sauce and draped on toast with deglazed carrots is nostalgia that goes down easily.
I've saved the best for last: A lusty pork shank propped upright and arranged with tangy sauerkraut and bread dumplings spotted with duck bacon. Caraway and white wine aren't the only reasons the sauerkraut, made with under-appreciated kohlrabi, is so compelling; duck fat, saved from the aforementioned confit, flavors the shredded vegetable, too. "Very little food goes into the trash can," says the resourceful Trautmann. (A good chef knows to use everything he buys. Early in my career, while preparing a meal in my galley kitchen in Milwaukee, Jacques Pepin employed a used lemon to clean my countertops.)
There are occasional misfires at District Kitchen. One night's steak showed up in the shape of South America, on a plate that fit in creamed greens. Neither meat nor leaf impressed me after tasting them: the steak demanded the sauce on the side; the vegetable was one-note and gluey to boot. Another bust: club fries, fat spears of undercooked potato. The slips extend to scallops that crunch from grit rather than a hot sear.
Simple comforts bring up the rear. Chocolate pot de creme is dense, dark and dreamy. Ice cream sweetened with the flavor of the moment, sorghum, is three scoops of fun topped with carrot cake crumbles. Apple buckle, on the other hand, revealed a gummy batter.
Smiles abound in the dining room. Part of this is explained by the affable servers, dressed casually in black T-shirts but plenty polished when it comes to rhapsodizing about the menu. The light mood is surely also the result of grateful neighbors, relieved to get an alternative to all the middling menus between Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park.
You might walk into District Kitchen thinking you've already eaten everything it serves, but you're likely to leave the restaurant pleased to be proved wrong.