Dystopian District? Less Blade Runner, More The Usual Suspects on a Plate

Such has been the impact of District, hyper-stylised Oldham Street take on “progressive barbecue cookery and liquid intelligence inspired by a future Bangkok”, that it soared into the Best Newcomer shortlist of the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards just weeks after opening. 

10 Tib Lane, an altogether quieter affair (no synthwave soundtrack), didn’t. It launched a crucial couple of months later and missed the cut.

What do they have in common? Both are sophomore projects of Northern Quarter ramen rivals; in District’s case Danny Collins, in 10 Tib Lane’s Ben Gretton and Tom De Santis. Their new ventures diverge fascinatingly. 

At Tokyo Ramen, pet project of Japanophile duo Collins and Stephanie Chiu, I adored the broth and noodles, but the stark experience erred towards being in a holding cell for Yakuza mobsters. Albeit only for a swift lunch break before parole. 

Two minutes’ walk away Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun was more fun, is more fun, playful of concept, the cocktails good. They are far better at 10 Tib Lane, where new business partner Joe White of Chorlton Bar Henry C can be found manning the bar. French-influenced small plates have upped their game too and the wine and beer offering is cannily chosen.

So what of District? Collins trumpeted pre-launch, in a way of justifying a pricey platform of tasting menus: “We don’t want dining to be a quick in-out job. Restaurants can be a place to spend a whole evening, at a pace that really allows you to relax.”

Visiting early evening, the sole customer for 40 minutes. I couldn’t gauge how mellow an extended stay with a full house might turn out. I didn’t mind the bombardment from the sound system because I had no one to talk to, apart from my excellent server Katie, who offered to write a full brief on each dish and its manifold constituents.

For her sake I was glad I had chosen the simplest menu, the £40 ‘My First Crush’ (“A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. A chance to begin again in  golden land of opportunity and adventure!” So not really Oldham Street).

As it turned out, with a substantial open kitchen team devoted to my needs, the seven course meal lasted under an hour and a half, which well suited me (with a Modern British Cider tasting head of me in the Green Quarter).

‘The Full Experience’  (“Do questionable things. See things you wouldn’t believe. All moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”) would have cost me £85 for 11 courses. No director’s cut discounts for recognising the Blade Runner quotes, but would the dishes set in my (immediate) future be outlandishly out of this world? The voyage started well.  A ceviche of Cornish wild sea bass tasted as exquisite as it looked, the pearly raw flesh dotted with Thai basil mayo and spiked with gaunt purple yam crisps. Punchy is the word for the pool of nam jim sauce the bass sits on. It’s a sour, salty, sweet amalgam of garlic, fish sauce, coriander root and not too assertive bird’s eye chilli.

Next up, ‘Not Tacos’ is two savoury discs that riff on the T word, one a purple corn tostada topped with nam tok (waterfall  beef) made with seared rib-eye, the other a soft omelette pancake bearing short rib cooked with turmeric and dried spices, southern curry style. It’s a one swallow each. A bit like shots, the hit is in the aftertaste. Just slightly unsatisfying.

Dishes three and four come in tandem, their contrast this time making perfect sense. I shall refer to Katie’s extensive note on this one, which definitely spares my short term memory.

Fire is at the centre of what District is about. That and dystopian lighting in disturbing purple, especially in the downstairs bar. The coals at the end of the kitchen counter offer a more welcoming glow. On them pork coppa shoulder was seared, slivers of it smeared with a tamarind jeaw or dipping sauce that in this instance offers a real umami smack. In beautiful contrast is the accompanying bowl of that under-rated brassica kohlrabi, cooked sous vide, carved into curls. It is dressed with, and I quote, palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, shrimp paste, bird’s eye chillies, then mixed with tomatoes candied in fish sauce caramel, crushed peanuts, ‘shrimp floss’ and long beans. It managed to be refreshing and complex.

All was building up to the chicken dish that seemed to constitute a main because it came with a portion or rice cooked in rich chicken stock, topped with crisped chicken skin.

There was an intense broth of coconut and galangal, laced with spring onion oil, that featured shimeji mushrooms and charred sweetcorn which demanded to be mopped up by every grain of rice. And the corn-fed chicken? An elaborate pan-Asian conceit that involved confiting chicken thighs in chicken fat, then removing the bones and pressing the flesh on skewers over coals.

All this was an absolute delight but then the meal tapered off. Massaman curry I always find a mite muddy and it didn’t do any favours for Herdwick hogget rump, slow-cooked then finished on the barbecue. A large minty oba leaf felt extraneous too.

Finally, the dessert called “It was only a dream” was hardly a nightmare but the mango, coconut fudginess was disappointingly bland. An esteemed colleague acutely compared the puffed rice topping to Coco Pops.

These are only tiny quibbles. But with their prices set to rise (up to £50 and £100 respectively) from the start of November and belt-tightening on the winter agenda District may need to refresh the launch menus to maintain its impetus. It’s not quite the Manchester game changer that drew the initial encomiums. There are definite echoes of Pan-Asian places head chef Ben Humphreys (second from right in the line-up) previously worked at – Australasia, the undervalued Tattu and, most closely, Rabbit In The Moon, definitely in decibel/dark decor levels.

The Thai barbecue approach has also led to comparisons with Kiln in Soho, but that has a more authentic jungle feel of raucous sizzle and the ingredients aren’t as polite (see above). Perhaps turn up the heat, District. To quote Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shoulders… burning with the fires of Orc.”

District, 60 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LE.