Looking for a dining experience unlike anything else in the District? You’re in luck! Housed in a pair of century-old red brick row homes at 1414 U St. in NW, District Distilling Co. is a new take on the neighborhood joint. Just last night, I had the privilege of previewing and tasting all it has to offer.
Inside, the resemblance of anything domestic is gone, and the architects have exposed the historic skeleton of rough worn brick, dark beams and arched windows.
“We wanted the old bones to shine,” says General Manager Said Haddad, a long-time purveyor of gastronomic delights and spirited libations in DC.
Speaking of shine, adjacent to a cozy welcome area where you can sip an “intro” to “liven up your palate before dinner without overwhelming it,” are the two-story stills glowing with polished copper. Custom-made in Germany, the stills are the heart of this new endeavor and make it the first distillery with a full-service restaurant in the city.
The project has been in the works for three years, and is the brainchild of some seriously experienced talent, including Executive Chef Justin Bittner and Head Distiller Matthew Strickland. Strickland is an expert in making whiskey, and he’ll be brewing up batches that will rest in hand-built, aged oak barrels. His team is also working on vodka, gin and rum.
While Strickland works his magic developing a new label of America’s favorite spirits, the bar upstairs is serving up beautifully crafted cocktails. Large and four-sided, the bar is the kind of place you park for a long evening and a good time. I was served by the lovely Maria, who whipped up the best French 75 I’ve had since a visit to NOLA. If you haven’t tried one, this classic cocktail developed in Paris near the end of World War I and named after the French army’s 75 mm. field gun is made up of gin, lemon, simple syrup and brut. It’s fizzy summer in a glass.
For something a little deeper, try the Quiote, made from Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, green Chartreuse, Schilling & Co. grapefruit cider and smoked Himalayan lime salt. It sounds super fancy, but the flavor is clean with just enough smokiness to be sexy, and not overdone. All of the cocktails are made with spirits from small-batch American distilleries – until the restaurant’s own label is ready.
Executive Chef Justin Bittner hails from U/14th Street fame, including Bar Pilar and Café Saint-Ex. He operates his own family farm, growing organic produce and conscientiously raising livestock, and his attention to detail is famous. Plates like seared scallops, ratatouille and roasted chicken are presented with flair without being fussy. Flavor is everything.
“It’s about substance and comfort,” Haddad says.
And boy was my char-grilled steak comforting. Char marks on the perfectly seasoned beef carried the unmistakable depth only careful dry-aging can bring, and the vegetables – carrots and Cipollini onions – were tender and nestled in the same demi-glace as the steak. Not to be forgotten is the parsnip puree with its burst of garden-fresh flavor. The simple pleasures of this entree called up childhood memories of going out for a steak on very special occasions with my family.
Just feel like a bite? White cheddar popcorn and seasoned mixed nuts are great for a quick snack before dinner. Hand-cut garlic and herb curly fries with malt aioli dipping sauce would seriously satisfy a late-night craving, as would the mesquite-smoked brisket tacos and buttermilk fried chicken biscuit.
I wholeheartedly recommend the steamed oyster buns on the bar plate menu. Two crispy, lightly fried Eastern Shore oysters are nestled onto smooshy beds of Japanese steam bun, dressed with a dab of chili aioli and a sprinkle of shredded romaine. Crunchy, spicy, sweet and spongy combined for my favorite treat of the night. I could eat these often with a drink and fries. This is the goal.
“We didn’t want [District Distilling] to feel new,” Haddad explains. “We want people in the neighborhood to come once or twice a week.”
The distillery, kitchen and bar definitely has the feel of a long-established DC staple – with a chic upgrade. Between great food and drink, the talent behind the scenes, and incredibly professional servers and bar staff, I think it will be around for a long time.
District Distilling opens this Friday, August 26. For reservations and menus, visitwww.district-distilling.com.
District Distilling Co.: 1414 U St. NW, DC; 202-629-3787; www.district-distilling.com