If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years, you can’t have helped but notice that tater tots have become something of a staple at restaurants catering to millennials. So you won’t be surprised to see them on the menu at The District, which opened late last year on the ground floor of The Dawson, one of the upscale condo and apartment buildings that have made downtown Raleigh home to a growing number of young professionals.
But if you were thinking that The District’s appeal is limited to a single demographic, think again. The menu is accurately billed as “Asian-inspired with a Southern influence,” but it doesn’t take long to realize that “comfort food for all” is another common thread woven throughout The District’s colorful tapestry of a menu. The list spans generations and cultures from grilled cheese sandwich to ramen bowl – though Dad wouldn’t recognize the grilled cheese.
He’d probably enjoy owner/chef Christopher Michael’s jazzy riff on the sandwich, though, which serves up gouda, Asian pear, green apple, arugula and raspberry jam on locally baked sourdough. And he’d definitely get a kick out of the name: A Very Gouda Grilled Cheese.
In fact, somebody’s father must surely have been involved in the naming of dishes, many of which carry that whiff of bad punning that’s a dead giveaway of dad humor. (Note to my family: no wisecracks allowed.) A burrito called I’ve Bean Thinking of You, for instance. Or Let’s Thai It All Together, an Asian-inspired medley of mock chicken, shiitake mushrooms, braised bok choy and jasmine rice. The menu informs you that you can substitute real chicken, though it should be noted that mock chicken makes several appearances (including a fried mock chicken sandwich called It’s Okay to Mock) on The District’s vegetarian-friendly menu.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy My Cress to Bear, a refreshingly different salad that serves up a kaleidoscope of avocado slices, mandarin orange sections and slivers of red onion on a bed of watercress and mixed greens, with a bright orange-honey dijon dressing on the side. Or an edamame-and-avocado mash-up (literally, in this case) of a take on guacamole with the brashly self-assured name of It’s Better This Way. Or Kim-Mac-Chee, the chef’s kimchi-laced play on mac and cheese.
The omnivores among us won’t be able to resist the temptation to raise the ante on the Kim-Mac-Chee by ordering the Southern Comfort, which dishes up a larger portion of that gooey Korean-spiced melange of gouda, cheddar, and pasta shells, then tops it off with a scoop of pulled pork barbecue.
Meat eaters will no doubt enjoy ordering a dish called You’re Pretty Baller as much as they will eating it: all-beef meatballs drizzled with a sweet ginger-soy glaze, each one nestled on a bed of pickled carrot, jasmine rice and leaf lettuce. Their only complaint might be about the price, $11 for four smallish meatballs.
But I can’t imagine anyone having the slightest quibble with We’ll Just Wing It. In Chef Michael’s twist on a pub classic, the wings are meaty and juicy beneath an extra-crunchy crust (twice-fried in the Korean style), and drizzled with a garlicky sweet-sour sauce that steals the “finger lickin’ good” crown from the Colonel.
Chef Michael is the first to admit that he’s not aiming for haute cuisine here. A small kitchen and streamlined crew necessitate the use of some commercial products – the breaded chicken patties in the Fowl Play sandwich, for instance, and the tortilla chips that come with It’s Better This Way. The green tea and red bean ice creams aren’t made in house, either, but the chocolate sauce drizzled on them is. The excellent cheesecake comes from Night Kitchen.
Unpretentious but generally well-executed, the food is precisely what Michael and his partner, manager Jermaine Landon, are shooting for. Combined with a playfully quirky decor and a warm, chatty wait staff that take their cue from the gregarious Landon, it deftly achieves the owners’ goal of filling the void that was left after the closing of The Borough, a popular downtown watering hole that formerly occupied the space.
Even if you don’t live downtown, it doesn’t take long before you relax into The District’s neighborhood-gathering-place vibe. Bring a couple of friends and share a plate of tots. Better yet, make it Tochos, topped with kimchee-cheese and sour cream. Order a cocktail – Oh, You Fancy, Huh? (gin, lavender, ginger, sparkling rosé and thyme in a champagne flute) if you’re feeling, well, fancy; the Square Meal (a shot of Jameson garnished with an olive rolled in goat cheese) if you’re the opposite of fancy. In no time, you’ll feel like a regular.
317 W. Morgan St., #117, Raleigh
Atmosphere: casual, playful
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: It’s My Cress to Bear, It’s Better This Way, We’ll Just Wing It, Tochos, cheesecake
Open: Dinner nightly. Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; get a sitter; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the Municipal Parking Deck across the street from the restaurant.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.