So it goes without saying that I really didn't expect much from District American Kitchen & Wine Bar, the signature restaurant at the new downtown Sheraton.
You know the hotel. It made headlines before it was even built because the city issued $350 million in revenue bonds to make it happen, to somehow kick-start downtown revitalization with a thousand new rooms for the convention center. Meanwhile, locals have been scratching their heads, wondering exactly why they should be excited about any of it.
And when it comes to restaurants, come on — who thinks mid-range corporate hotel eateries are anything but boring? I went into District as a full-on skeptic, and didn't get a great impression on my first visit.
But I've since warmed to it a bit. Though I don't think the intimate-sounding "American Kitchen & Wine Bar" tag will fool anyone into thinking District is some kind of funky foodie destination — the wine list isn't distinctive, the menu doesn't stray into innovation — there are impressive details that defy expectations.
Chef Nathan Crouser's fine-dining background (Michael Mina in San Francisco, Il Terrazzo at The Phoenician) comes through in his use of boutique ingredients and local produce, from Cedar River Farms rib eye to Black Mesa Ranch goat cheese. The provenance is all over the menu, and the waitstaff is keen to talk about it. Cool.
It's a surprise for this kind of restaurant — one that tells me District isn't merely there to feed lanyard-wearing out-of-state conventioneers, but maybe to get attention from residents who might appreciate and recognize something like Schreiner's sausage (good stuff made right in central Phoenix). For me, it's enough to put District on my radar if I'm looking for a decent dinner downtown.
Keep in mind I said dinner. I had lunch here a few times and was consistently disappointed.
First off, the service swung back and forth between overbearing (Ugh, who likes being interrupted every five minutes?) to "Hey, where did that annoying waiter suddenly disappear to now that I need something?"
Besides that, the food struck me as both pricey and poorly executed. I'd come back again and again if District could do a good tuna melt, but 14 bucks for an open-faced version that had a sad little cap of barely melted Colby-Jack atop two cold scoops of tuna and mushy rye bread? Never again.
Cedar-roasted salmon was overcooked and dry, and a side of shrimp and asparagus risotto was not enough to redeem it. The ham tasted off in the skimpy appetizer portion of heirloom melon, ham, and goat cheese, while the grilled ham and cheese sandwich was salty to the extreme — so overpowering that it made the accompanying tomato soup (fine on its own) seem bland.
Fried calamari were tasty, especially with chimichurri and chipotle dips, and the baby arugula salad (roasted beets, pecans, hard-boiled egg, squash chips, and apple dressing) was downright delicious, with really fresh, tender greens. But I certainly wouldn't go out of my way for it.
My attitude about District changed as soon as the sun had set. Come dinnertime, the vibe was a lot less frenetic, the service more thoughtful, the food more satisfying.
(I should also mention that you can assemble a casual dinner from the appetizers offered in the bar/lounge area, just beyond the dining room. They mix a mean cocktail, and the list of well-priced craft beers is another highlight.)
Steamed mussels with oven-roasted tomatoes and habanero-chive broth got things off to a pleasant start. The mussels were plump, and the fragrant broth was good enough to soak up with bread. I was also impressed with the freshness of Arizona sweet shrimp in the po'boy sliders, jazzed up with andouille sausage and a mild celery root slaw.
Cheeseburger sliders went down just as easily — served on soft, golden buns, with cheddar and crispy onions, these juicy mini-burgers were nicely done. Meanwhile, the bacon and blue-cheese-heavy BLT salad was quite rich. I liked the flavor, but I'd recommend sharing it instead of trying to polish it off alone.
In the way of entrees, I'd absolutely order the short rib again. It was as thick as a filet, as tender as pot roast, and smothered in dark, savory Oak Creek Nut Brown Ale sauce. I loved the warm, creamy cheddar-jalapeño grits that came with it, and as for the roasted carrots resting on top, I can only say I wanted more of those candy-like roots.
Organic Berkshire pork tenderloin was another winner — perfectly cooked, with a smoky, slightly spicy exterior. Roasted green beans, a bowl of heady mac and cheese, and some gooey, just-cooked applesauce rounded out the plate.
Also in a comfort food vein, I like the fried chicken and mashed red potatoes, slathered in peppery gravy, as well as the fish and chips. The crispy chips were nothing unusual, but the batter-dipped Alaskan cod was light and moist. Meanwhile, Georges Bank scallops were nicely seared, but teamed with mushrooms, peppers, and Italian sausage, the delicate flavor of the seafood was completely lost. I imagined that just from reading the menu, and my prediction came true.
The first time I had dinner at District, I spotted something both unusual and familiar: cotton candy. Waiters were delivering big poufs of blue fluff at the very end of the meal, along with the bill. Hmm, where have I seen that before? At NOCA — and nowhere else in town. (NOCA's at the top end of local eateries, with French-influenced modern American cuisine.)
Glancing at the dessert list, I spotted doughnut holes and even a milkshake, two more playful treats that NOCA introduced to the Phoenix fine-dining scene just a couple months before District opened. Considering the accolades already given to NOCA, props to District for paying tribute.
The kitchen did a fine job, too — warm doughnut holes with strawberry jam and a cup of hot spiced cider, a creamy bourbon malt shake served with three moist mini-whoopie pies, oozing vanilla frosting. Sugary, too-dense raspberry cobbler didn't make me smile, but I'd be content to stick to that bourbon shake anyway.
To be sure, District is hit-and-miss. But I'm hopeful it'll improve. Believe it or not, I think this corporate hotel restaurant has a heart — and it seems to be in the right place.