Some new restaurants just seem to get everyone talking. District is one of those restaurants.
The Northern Quarter’s new opening, from the team behind Tokyo Ramen, is all about Thai barbecue – though probably not as you know it.
In fact, District, which aims to bring “a futuristic vision of Bangkok’s fire- and barbecue-lined streets to the NQ”, has already had its first national press review less than a month after opening.
And though The Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin had things to be wary – and weary – of (“Oh goody, more men playing with fire, more white boys cooking Thai food”; “The downstairs bar is so gloomy it’s best avoided for anything other than a goth wake”) it’s clear that the food more than impressed. And we can see why.
There are two set menus available: “My First Crush” at £40 a head for seven courses, or “The Full Experience” offering 12 courses at £85 a head.
Both start with raw wild bass, served with nam jim, purple yam and Thai basil.
The fish is delicate and sweet, but the accompanying nam jim, a lime and chilli fish sauce mix usually used as a dipping sauce, packs a hefty punch, thrillingly salty, sweet, spicy and sour. The kind of dish that makes your heart beat a bit faster.
The crisp purple yam adds sweet crunch, while the blobs of green mayo add an anise-like richness thanks to Thai basil.
It’s pupil-dilatingly good. And The Sunday Times agrees: “I’m poleaxed, startled into cartoonish gawping,” writes Marina.
Courses are delivered in quick succession, and our server recommends eating the next dish – “not tacos” – with our hands.
The first is a crispy purple corn tostada topped with rib-eye nam tok, the intensely savoury, smoky beef topped with the crunch of toasted rice powder.
The other, a soft little pancake, is loaded with tender southern curried beef brisket, rich with turmeric and ground spices.
Manchester is not short of taco options, but based on these, we’d go for “not tacos” every time.
The next two dishes arrive together, designed to be eaten alongside one another.
Pork coppa, a cut usually used for charcuterie, is grilled here and dressed with tamarind jeaw, a spicy, sweet and salty Thai barbecue sauce topped with crunchy toasted rice.
It’s served with shaved sweet yet peppery kohlrabi with peanuts and candied tomatoes.
The red curry Hereford x Angus beef short rib on the menu has been substituted on our visit for corn-fed chicken with a fragrant coconut galangal broth with baby corn, spring onion oil and lime leaves, with a bowl of rice on the side to soak up the juices. It’s superb.
Then there’s hogget – meat from a sheep between one and two years old, somewhere between tender lamb and full-flavoured mutton in terms of taste.
The rich, lightly fatty meat is spiced with nam prik pao, an earthy Thai chilli paste, and topped with shrimp floss and crispy kale.
A dessert of mango, coconut and popped rice is another winner, sweet and creamy, and titled It Was Only A Dream.
And cocktails match well, going by our Robots Blood (£9.50) which mixes aromatic lemongrass gin, butterfly pea tonic and citrus.
“I come away fully enthralled, taste buds feeling as though they’d been spark-plugged into line,” writes Marina in her Sunday Times review. “This is energising, exhilarating cooking.”
It may have only just opened, but District is already showing extraordinary confidence with a menu that’s innovative but not intimidating.
It’s utterly thrilling.
District, Phoenix House, 60 Oldham St, M4 1LE. Find out more at districtmanchester.co.uk.