The folks have season tickets to the Broadway Series at PlayhouseSquare and they're always asking me where they should eat before the show. "Home" was my usual answer, given the historic lack of noteworthy establishments in the Theatre District.
Now, of course, we have Cowell & Hubbard, Zack Bruell's grand bistro, but frankly, that food is a little too "out there" for their down-to-earth tastes. Fortunately, we now also have District. This attractive new bistro owns the sweet spot between casual and upmarket, dishing up food that's refined yet eminently approachable. In short, it's the rare kind of restaurant that my parents and I can enjoy together.
That's precisely what we did one night, the four of us enjoying an unhurried mid-week meal before they had to make the long trek across the street to the Hanna Theatre. The restaurant, situated in the old Hunan Renaissance on East 14th Street, seemed to pop up out of nowhere overnight. That's just how owner Seth Bromberg wanted it.
"We did the exact opposite of most people," Bromberg says, in reference to the usual pre-opening hype that accompanies most new restaurants. "We wanted to get everything in order, start slow and do it right."
"Doing it right" is what Bromberg has been doing for years as the owner of both Northeast Ohio Melting Pot restaurants. Before that, he worked for years with Morton's Steakhouse and Ritz-Carlton. Regardless of whether you're selling melted cheese or USDA Prime steaks, Bromberg gets that the underlying principals of restaurant management are unchanging.
"It's all about hospitality," he says. "Whatever you're serving, it has to be about great food, great service and a having a good time."
The completely reworked space is elegant, comfortable and just the right size. A 90-seat dining room ensures that the kitchen can capably handle both time-sensitive theatergoers and leisurely diners, and do so without compromising the quality of the product. A new 13-seat horseshoe bar gives singles and small groups a place to roost.
Heading up the kitchen is Ran Sagi, an Israeli-born chef with Mediterranean leanings. His fresh approach to food can be seen in lighter dishes like a beet and apple salad ($7) with greens, blue cheese and soy vinaigrette. Or the Middle Eastern-style chickpea and lentil salad ($6) with crisp romaine and an herby dressing.
Sagi operates under the welcome formula of "right portion at the right price." A lavish-sounding starter of goat cheese-stuffed calamari ($11) actually is on the delicate side, with bite-size pieces of stuffed and fried baby squid. A hearty bowl of fresh pappardelle marinara with spinach is just $12.
The chef pairs a medley of sautéed veal cutlets, shrimp and calamari ($23) in the lightest of cream sauces with an unfussy rice pilaf. That same rice pilaf sides a straightforward but surprisingly satisfying pan-seared chicken breast ($16) with mushrooms and tomatoes in white wine sauce.
There's no shortage of places that serve up duck confit, but District swaps out the duck for American goose ($25), and the results are extraordinary. Crisp-skinned, meltingly tender, and not at all greasy or gamy, the goose is a revelation. A red-wine and cranberry reduction cuts the richness of the dish. In a similar vein, a sweet, earthy and complex onion chutney transforms silky smooth chicken liver pate ($8) into a feast for the senses. Schmeared atop house-baked rolls, the starter is at once rustic and luxurious.
Quick, reasonably priced and well-crafted lunches join progressive wine and cocktail lists and house-made desserts as reasons why District should stay busy day, evening and post-theater. Some two-dozen wines by the glass mean diners can find a suitable mate for desserts like Fire and Ice ($7), gooey, warm-centered chocolate cake sided by cool and creamy vanilla ice cream, or semifredo crème brulee with fresh berries ($7).
Bromberg, who up until now has focused his professional career in the suburbs, is thrilled to be a part of downtown's revitalization.
"This is where it is," he explains. "I know it sounds cliché, but it's happening — downtown is completely under construction. When we opened Melting Pot in 2004, the city wanted us to come downtown, but it was a war zone. But now, we are proud to join the downtown family."