Meet the New Neighbor
A mere half-dozen years or so after national publications began hyping the Design District as our town's hottest new area, it seems like the "square mile of style" (a nickname from its Seventies heyday as the upscale design center) is finally turning into a real neighborhood. In just the past year the inception of numerous new residential projects has altered the district's feel from nice place to visit (when you need a $1200 bathroom faucet) to exciting 24/7 urban living center in the making. Support services for future residents are already springing up -- restaurants that stay open past weekday business-lunch hours, for instance.
This is not to sound too starry-eyed. Most of these condo projects are nothing more than holes in the ground at present. So exactly what kind of neighborhood it will be a few years from now is still in question. But the current development excitement is most often likened to New York's SoHo thirty years ago, or to South Beach fifteen years ago.
Walking down NE 40th Street one recent Saturday just after midnight, it sounded more like South Beach today: boom-boom-boom. Fortunately my destination was not Grass, the already terminally trendy resto/lounge from which the relentless beat was emanating, but the District, just across the street.
Open since early May in the space occupied for almost 40 years by Piccadilly Garden, the District has positioned itself, like its homey predecessor, as a neighborhood-oriented hangout. The décor is definitely sleeker (don't miss the transparent bar, which flows with water), and after midnight the DJ music's volume was cranked beyond levels conducive to conversation. But the feel was friendly casual chic -- no velvet rope, no 'tude. And the hours were equally user-friendly; the place serves three squares daily: lunch, dinner, and late light bites.
The menu -- a collaboration between consulting chef Michael Jacobs, Tantra's original head honcho, and Piccadilly's veteran executive chef Jeremy Williams -- is divided into U.S. culinary districts. For lunch a friend stuck close to home with a Southeastern snapper wrap. The fillets, enfolded in a very fresh whole-wheat tortilla, had been grilled over wood just long enough to impart succulent smokiness, but remained juicy. A light chili rub provided heat, and a minty mango/pineapple salsa cooled the fire. Accompanying greens were not the usual throwaway garnish but a generous portion of lightly dressed arugula.
It's hard to say why my grouper strips were called "Midwest-inspired." Was the beer batter coating made from Milwaukee's finest? If so, the chef turned dross into gold. The airy coating adhered beautifully, and was so succulently spiced that a container of strongly cilantro-spiked arugula/lime dipping sauce was unnecessary. But the tart, creamy dip made a great salad dressing for the mountain of crisp napa cabbage under the three fried-fish skewers, turning a seven-dollar appetizer into a filling meal.
At dinner an antipasto platter bore little resemblance to the plates of cold cuts one finds in Little Italy districts, except for slices of jamon serrano -- a Spanish raw ham like prosciutto but more chewy and nutty. Chickpea purée, lighter than most hummus, had a bracing lemony taste and just enough chunky bits in its velvety smooth base to provide textural interest. Tapénade, made from green rather than the usual black olives, provided a salty, refreshing counter to crostini topped with mild, cleanly acidic Laura Chenel goat cheese. Rounding out the plate were grilled portobellos and a variety of spicy roasted veggies.
While a nice but normal pan-seared crab patty was termed a "salad cake" for reasons none of my party could figure, its "Big Easy" inspiration was a cinch to suss out. The dish's "Creole-horseradish cream," with no discernible horseradish and a lot of hot-pepper kick, was a classic New Orleans remoulade.
Surprisingly, the starter our table of carnivores fought over was a vegetarian portobello mushroom Napoleon. The stacked mushroom sandwich evoked Southern sweet-potato pie, but was less one-dimensional. Two savory elements -- a concentrated, cooked-down onion glaze, and drizzles of aged fig balsamic vinegar -- balanced the sweetness of the strongly vanilla-flavored potato purée, providing the comfort quotient of the old Southern pie without the original's blandness.
Diver scallops are, of course, very fashionable these days. The idea behind them -- a scallop gently dislodged by divers is less stressed than shellfish dragged in nets behind a boat -- is also perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, though, the pampered creatures are abused by many chefs, and an overcooked diver scallop is just as rubbery as any other. But the District's gently pan-seared Atlantic Northeast diver sea scallops made it easy to see what the fuss is about. Accompanied by braised leeks and a bold wild-mushroom ragout, the huge meaty specimens were tender but firm enough to retain every bit of their naturally sweet, rich juices. They were sauced with a béarnaise-like tarragon aioli.
To be honest, we ordered a Southwest skirt steak entrée for its accompanying onion strings. And the lightly battered, heavily seasoned, superthin rings -- so easy to make, so hard to find made well -- were indeed wonderful. But the real surprise was the steak. Forget the fact that churrasco is on every Miami menu. The District's hot (but not too hot) five-chili spice rub made this a skirt steak that blew all others away.
For those who'd rather taste test before committing, the District's menu of so-called Night Bites provides small samplers from lunch and dinner, including the antipasto's chickpea purée. Two skewers of skirt steak plus two of chili-rubbed tiger shrimp come as "Dueling Sensations." Pared-down lunch entrées included buttermilk-soaked chicken wings and crispy calamari. The calamari's Asian panko-crumb crust was actually too heavy, and the accompanying chipotle pepper aioli was indistinguishable from normal tartar sauce. But the three big battered wings were perfect Southern fried chicken, with an added buffalo accent provided by chunky blue cheese dip. There are also a few unique tapas items like fiocchi, elegant beggar's purses of pasta stuffed with cheese and pear chunks in a creamy, mild blue cheese sauce.
With South Beach cocktail prices of $11 to $13, it's easy to run up a sizable tab. But the food itself won't be to blame. The wonderful wings (as well as the calamari, plus Prince Edward Island mussels in lemon grass broth) are only three dollars per plate. And prices for food served during earlier hours are almost as neighborly.
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