Saturday, August 23, 2008

Review: Distrito

Jose Garces recently got some national attention by whooping the forever ancho-wielding Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America last week, but we in Philadelphia never had a doubt that Garces would win that battle. Garces's first restaurant, Amada, is probably my favorite restaurant in the city, so word of a new "modern Mexican" venture by Chef Garces was very welcome. Distrito, in University City, would cater more to the college crowd, and we wanted to make sure we got there before the hordes of students return next week and render it intolerable (sorry, it's on the campus of my alma mater: I shouldn't judge, but Penn students are by and large horrible).

First off, the ambiance. The decor is bright and colorful, a departure from the plush old word style of his other two venues. You might think that Stephen Starr had something to do with the joint just from looking around inside it. The waitstaff is friendly, but our waitress had no clue as to what was going on or what we had been served. She was asking us what had arrived at our table – isn't it her job to know that? There were delays in ordering and service, and we were offered dessert before all of our food had been served (one dish was delivered to another table, so that dish was rightfully comped). I don't think I've ever had service this clueless in any restaurant, but it is inexcuseable in a fine dining establishment. It seems like this was just bad luck on our part, as P's coworker went the following night and reported excellent service.

The food: a few absolute hits, only a couple misses. "Modern Mexican" is a fitting description. Most dishes are Mexican classics at their hearts, though reinterpreted through more modern fine-dining ingredients and/or presentations. Garces's signature flatbreads of the sort served at Amada also make an appearance here. Though execution was superb across the board, one overall critique is that everything was slightly salty.

Highlights included: Huaraches (flatbreads): Guisades (shortrib with 3 chile BBQ) and Los Hongos (Forest Mushroom with Huitlacoche Sauce and Black Truffle)

Tacos: Carnitas and Cachetes de Ternera (Veal Cheek)

Sopes of poblano and sweet onion with a poached quail egg (you all know how I feel about poached eggs)

Carne Asada: perfectly prepared New York strip with cornmeal crusted fried tomatillos. Simple and the sleeper hit of the night.

Also outstanding was a hamachi ceviche, served with a melon-ball-sized scoop of sangrita sorbet.

A few things that we weren't so fond of:

Esquite: this was roasted corn served with queso fresco served in a glass almost parfait-style. A bit bland and just not what I was expecting.

The universally disliked dish was the duck mole poblano. The sauce so overpowered the duck that it was a bit of a waste of waterfowl.

Desserts were excellent, including "Los Mangos" which featured diced mango sandwiched between two delightfully light pieces of meringue, and a more traditional version of Amada's ridiculously delicious churros (these served without the chile powder on top). Our friends were  a little disappointed with their ice creams, which were more like ice milk in texture, and they passed on the corn-flavored ice cream on the menu.

Prices are reasonable: slightly lower per-dish than Amada, but just remember that portions are similarly sized (two small tacos per order, for example). Some fancy margaritas, including the Hemingway with grapefruit and chili-infused tequila.

Distrito is definitely worth a trip. It remains to be seen how it will survive the inevitable crush of Penn students when school is back in session, but let's hope that whatever doesn't kill it only makes it stronger.

Distrito on Urbanspoon

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