Kelly Bishop checks out this hip 'new wave Thai' inspired tasting menu
I’ve spent a lot of time on what is affectionately known as the arse end of Oldham Street.
It's a well-trodden stomping ground for sweaty gigs in back rooms and basements, the squeal of tattoo guns piercing the air thick with bus fumes and skunk. A scuffed jumble of charity shops, fluorescent fast food outlets and overstretched homelessness support centres.
I’d love a massive bowl of this with a mound of jasmine rice which makes me question the tasting menu approach.
If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be up here paying £85 a head (OK there's a £40 option too) for a tasting menu of “progressive barbecue cookery and liquid intelligence inspired by a future Bangkok” in a former newsagent’s. Well, I’d have gestured broadly at the general vicinity and guffawed. But here I am playing Jeff Bezos on the arse end of Oldham Street.
I’ve got to hand it to the folk behind District, they’ve got some balls.
District’s owner Danny Collins is the brains (along with Stephanie Chiu) behind excellent noodle soup gaff Tokyo Ramen. Head chef Ben Humphreys has done time at nouveau-Asian restaurants Australasia, Tattu and Rabbit In The Moon. The latter is closest to what you’ll find here at District. Michael O’Hare’s short-lived space-Asian splatter fest divided critics. I liked it - though I haven’t forgiven him for making me behead and disembowel a pair of pigeons in my own kitchen during lockdown.
Despite my pathological scepticism, I’m excited to visit. I love a bit of ambition and creativity from restaurants and I’m so bored with bland, lookalike menus. Bland, this is irrefutably not.
The space is hyper-stylised with harsh purple lighting, steel tables that look like they belong in the kitchen and the white tiles and houndstooth upholstery of an Instagram interior design account. Placemats resemble digital scales, cutlery is matte black (of course) and cocktails with names like Robot's Blood are served from punch-labelled mini milk bottles and poured over ice cubes imprinted with the restaurant’s logo.
Raw concrete and metal give it that edgy, industrial but futuristic, Bladerunner-esque hue. There's a nod to the film in the blurbs accompanying the menus on the website. A forthcoming subterranean cocktail bar looks ideal for late-night misbehaviour. It sure fits the post-apocalypse pandemic mood.
Every dish, District says, has “touched their barbecue”. Occasionally, the whiff of paraffin is a bit much. That said, there are more hits than misses.
The most memorable is the first course: raw wild bass in a delightfully pongy nam jim (fish sauce spiked with lime, garlic and a whisper of chilli) and crowned Maleficent-style with crisp shards of purple yam. It sets the bar high and I'm seriously impressed.
A dish named “Not tacos” - perhaps a jibe at the Mexican snack's prevalence in the Northern Quarter - we're told splits diner opinion but we both favour the crisp bottomed one topped with rare ribeye slightly more than its curried pulled brisket pal on soft omelette.
A playful take on prawn toast with salty brown shrimp balanced by a layer of mango and topped with shrimp floss delights my Lytham-born (aka shrimp royalty) dining pal.
Corn-fed chicken is a hit too: yielding flesh, crisp skin and a cluster of shimeji mushrooms done on the barbecue sop up a crowdpleaser of a broth with coconut, galangal and neon spring onion oil. I’d love a massive bowl of this with a mound of jasmine rice which makes me question the tasting menu approach. A few star mains like this would demand repeat visits.
A Hereford x Angus beef short rib curry is primary school poster paint red. Pickled onion brings necessary sharpness to its pureed, BBQ-smoked coconut ("smokeonut") base - but in a slightly odd Ploughman’s lunch way. Several dishes are presented with the words, “It’s got a bit of a kick to it, this one” but this is the only one that really does.
Rich hogget belly is served with Thailand’s perennial roasted chilli sauce nam prik pao and a gorgeous frill of charred kale. Impeccably cooked Goosnargh duck in a phat phet jus hits somewhere between katsu and black bean.
We are unenthused by pork coppa served with a neutered som tam using kohlrabi in place of papaya. Khana (Chinese broccoli) sings with the singeing of the BBQ but barely redeems an unseasoned piece of cod with Isan herb sauce. We're told the dish has been moved down the menu as it wasn’t working between later courses. Perhaps the dish itself needs a tweak rather than its position in the lineup.
An underwhelming chicken wing with “fish sauce caramel” that we're encouraged to eat with our hands arrives hotter than the tiles around a Phuket hotel pool at midday and nearly takes the skin off our fingertips.
Dessert "It was only a dream" is a reimagining of a classic that frustratingly loses all the charm of the original. I have misty-eyed memories of sticky rice, steamed custard and impossibly ripe mango dripping down my chin in the backstreets of BKK. This fudgy oblong with its squiggle of (tinned?) Alphonso mango puree and scattering of Rice Krispies has neither the unctuous texture nor the balance of sweet, sharp and creamy I’m after. It only makes me dream of Thailand.
The wine list is five inexpensive bottles: a red, a white, a rosé, an orange and a bang-on-trend pet nat. Our charming server Shaun tells us our Felicette rosé (£30) is named after the first cat on the moon. With a whiff of strawberry yoghurt Campino sweets, it's just fine for guzzling on a hot day. I suspect it was chosen for its funky label as much as anything. It has to be kept in the fridge as there are no wine coolers.
Some context on price: Where The Light Gets In is £65 per head, Wood’s 7-courser is £85, lunch at Michelin starred Moor Hall will set you back £95. If two people ordered all 17 dishes on the menu at Soho’s Kiln (a rumoured influence behind District) it would cost around £160 and include delights like lobster, monkfish, raw fallow deer, marrowbone, trotters and “blood cake”.
District is a lot of fun and overall a really enjoyable experience. Well-cooked, locally sourced meat and fish with enough interesting (if not as wildly adventurous as I expected) ideas to keep you entertained.
Collins has said he wants it to be "different but accessible" but these are not accessible prices for many. You are definitely paying a premium for hipness. I’m not sure it quite sits confidently among other players in its price bracket just yet but it's a promising start and it stands out a mile in both the stuffy fine-dining world and on the arse end of Oldham Street.
District 60 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LE
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
bass 10, tacos 8, coppa 6, kohlrabi 6, chicken 9, wing 6, red curry 8.5, brown shrimp 9, hogget 8, market fish 5, duck 7.5, dessert 5
Cool as fuck, enthusiastic and friendly
Post-apocalypse pandemic party chic, not your grandma's idea of fine dining