Four of us stare at our menus at the new District on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. "Duck fat Yorkshire pudding," one friend exclaims when she reads the first item. Let's save that for later, I tell her. Why don't we order some biscuits before we decide anything, hmmm? Baked to order, they look adorable snuggled down in a napkin. The Cheddar-flavored biscuits are flaky and a dark gold, with a little jalapeño lurking in the background. I love having them as a course on their own, they're that good.
Bone marrow pierogies? Pigs heart confit? "There's nothing ordinary on this menu," another friend notes with gusto. "Great!"
It is great, because chef Kris Morningstar, who made a splash at Blue Velvet downtown as opening chef, is taking his chances that diners who really like to eat will find him and District. He's not catering to any specific crowd but cooking what excites him and his fellow cooks in the kitchen. The food is gutsy and also delicious, a combination that's not as easy to find as you'd think it would be, particularly in this boho stretch of Hollywood.
And while we're at it, did I mention that the menu states "modifications accepted only on February 29th"? Which means you have to eat the food the way the chef intends it. No sauce on the side. No substituting this for that or that for this.
A gentle green tomatillo gazpacho is chilled and garnished with sweet bay scallops, cilantro leaves and buttery avocado, a delightful way to start a meal at District on a summer night. Those pierogies are filled with potato overlaid with the rich, unctuous taste of bone marrow. If these tender little bundles are any example, maybe it's time for pierogies to make a comeback.
The chef also does a fine rendition of corn agnolotti embellished with silky porcini and tossed in brown butter accented with hazelnuts, and a splash of lime to cut the richness. Even better are the agnolotti stuffed with puréed rice and cheese in an earthy porcini and hazelnut sauce. Cut into one, and the filling flows out like lava.
Those are just some of the smaller dishes in Morningstar's quirky repertoire. Carpaccio of pigs heart confit sounds a lot weirder than it tastes. The thin slices have a mild porcine flavor enhanced with a squirt of walnut oil and some peppery wild arugula. Another oddball item is smoked beef deckle, something like a beef bacon with a tall ribbon of fat, served with a cooling cucumber salad.
Not everything is quite so cutting-edge. There's a nicely dressed Bibb lettuce salad strewn with Marcona almonds and plump roasted grapes. And sometimes he has a salad of burgundy-and-white-streaked Treviso radicchio with creamy French feta and fat croutons, all cloaked in a spunky gribiche sauce. Nothing wimpy about these salads.
I loved the rabbit crepinette, the patty of rabbit meat juicy and well seasoned on a bed of English peas and sliced carrots, each perfectly cooked, deep in flavor and slicked with a little butter. When you've got ingredients this good, you don't have to do much.
Another favorite is shrimp and grits, two or three shrimp with the head on, preserving all their fresh sweet taste, on a bed of white grits permeated with an intense shrimp stock.
Watch the other folks eating as plates whiz around the table to be tasted and admired. It seems to me that Morningstar, who worked with Suzanne Goin at A.O.C., strikes the right balance with interesting, even unusual food without indulging in shock value. This is all about flavor and integrity of ingredients.
District sits right next door to owner George Abou-Daoud's other project, Mercantile, a wine bar and deli that opened in November. Morningstar oversees the kitchen at both places.
District is a casual place, with a long mahogany bar built in France in the early 1900s. Tables run lengthwise down the middle, and there are a handful of booths along the walls. You want to sit either at the bar or in a booth. The chairs that go with the tables are high and uncomfortable.
The staff, though, is terrific, personable in the best possible sense. Sommelier and manager Paul Sanguenetti has a genuine interest in wine and shifts bottles on and off the eclectic list as he comes across wines that he likes. He breaks out of the mold too with his selections for wines by the glass.
District comes complete with distinctive made-to-order cocktails such as "Another Man's Rhubarb," a rather elegant take on the Tom Collins. There's a smart roster of spirits, including rye whiskey and single-malt Scotch as well.
Main courses are mostly under $30 and generous enough to share, though generally they're not as compelling as the starters and smaller plates.
Columbia River salmon is rosy at the center, served with bright green fava beans and black trumpet mushrooms. A Sonoma lamb rack with good flavor comes with a vegetable bouquet of fresh garbanzo beans, snap peas and fennel. Those earthy trumpet mushrooms show up again with a fine piece of hanger steak cooked to a true medium rare and served with white asparagus, mashed potatoes and the steak's juices. A ball of chopped, dry-aged steak with a fried egg on top is a pretty good deal at $19.
At the beginning of the meal your waiter will ask if you're interested in the chocolate soufflé. You very much are. It comes out, a proper soufflé, with a small pitcher of crème anglaise to pour inside. Break out the spoons and dig into the cloud of chocolate. There's also a lovely huckleberry pie with streusel on top and a fragile toffee napoleon with caramel parfait to polish off the evening.
It's good to have Morningstar back in the kitchen again, this time at a more casual spot where he can indulge himself by changing the menu often. I might come back for spicy meatballs and find rabbit crepinette or some other inventive dish in its place. That I like. The moderate prices too. And the fact that everyone seems to be enjoying the food so much the scene recedes into the background.
It's a comfortable, easygoing place where you don't have to think about reserving days in advance. If there's not a table, sit at the bar. And if that's full, go next door to Mercantile for some small plates to tide you over. It's that distinctly urban vibe that makes District such an appealing newcomer.
Rating: two stars
Location: 6600 Sunset Blvd. (at Seward), Los Angeles; (323) 962-8200; http://www.districtonsunset.com
Price: House baked breads, $3; appetizers, $8 to $16; main courses, $19 to $32; dessert, $8 to $10. Corkage fee, $20.
Details: Open 6 p.m. to midnight. Tuesday to Saturday; 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.