Hicks Weekly Dish: District Cafe food is excellent, but the service needs work BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: TUESDAY, JULY 18, 2017
District Cafe & Bakery
10011 109 St. (corner of 109 Street and 100 Avenue)
Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dinner for two, excluding tip and beverages: basic, $30; loaded, $60
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 2.5 of 5 Suns
The District Café and Bakery does just about everything right: Its well-designed interior is bright, blond and clean. The high ceilings and all-window exterior walls make you breathe big. The spacious patio well-utilizes the outside space at 109 Street and 100 Avenue.
The menu is beautifully designed to turn with the time of day. It’s very much in tune with the District Cafe’s bakery roots, yet branches out, especially at dinner, to healthy, tasty and inexpensive vittles.
But on this particular weekday evening, there is a service problem. More perplexing, the casual, t-shirts + shorts serving staff is unaware of its own transgressions.
That the food is first-rate should be no surprise. A little over a year old in its expanded format, The District is one of the three popular neighbourhood-style eateries owned and operated by chef/entrepreneur Nate Box including The Little Brick Cafe in Riverdale and Oliver's Elm Cafe. (Actually four outlets, if Box resurrects the currently closed Burrow Cafe in the Central LRT station.)
Box is a stickler for food quality and has an intuitive understanding of his customers’ ever-evolving culinary desires. He also hires top chefs – new to District is Spencer Thompson, formerly of Toast Catering and the Alberta Hotel Bar & Grill.
Our delicious, light dinner starts with a generous bowl, practically a potful of freshly-popped popcorn with a flavour-of-the-day orange-tinged honey with sea salt.
The roast eggplant, $13, is as satisfying a vegetarian dish as can be had in the city – the eggplant is sautéed, tossed, hot and garlicky, balanced visually and tastefully by little piles of chilled cherry tomatoes, cooked and cooled zucchini bites, and a smooth, soothing kitchen-made ricotta.
Each bite is a comfort. Included on the plate are slices of fresh focaccia bread – a touch adding contrast, fibre and do-it-yourself sandwich assembly if so wished.
The two meat dishes are intriguing – small portions, maybe three or four ounces, of sous-vide chicken breast slices and flat-iron steak.
The flat-iron steak (given the soaring cost of beef, a bargain at $20) is the clear winner here. The sous-vide technique (the meat placed in pouches, water-immersed and slow-cooked) works beautifully on the usually tough beef cut, transforming it to a velvety texture, full of its own flavour, rare throughout yet fully cooked. A quick pan-sear and seasoned salt creates an exterior crust. If a template could be created for up-grading economy beef cuts to gourmet status, this is it.
The chicken … I don’t know, chicken is chicken. The sous-vide made the flesh a tad mellower, more rubbery in texture but not in taste. It’s the kind of dish to which a serious weight watcher would gravitate, with taste somewhat sacrificed on the altar of calorie-counting.
In both cases, the meats came with a satisfying accompaniment of fresh and properly cooked veggies and salad ingredients (no carbs with the chicken, lightly oiled baby potatoes with the beef).
The lunch and breakfast menus look equally attractive. The District Café is also gaining repute as an excellent downtown weekend brunch spot. The baked goods, all made on the premises, are top-notch.
Why the criticism of the service? On arrival, we were indifferently greeted. Our principal server was pleasant but distant, and had to be summoned back to take our main-course orders – in a two-thirds empty restaurant.
One glass of wine – delivered by somebody else – was given to the wrong person without asking. Likewise the main dishes were mixed up – the server not bothering to ask which dish was for whom.
In general, the staff seemed more interested in chatting with each other behind the bar counter rather than being attentive to customer needs.
The food and ambience of the District Café is first-rate. The service – from this experience – is lacking.
* * *
A critical mass of good restaurants now line 109 Street from Jasper Avenue south to the High Level Bridge, including District Café & Bakery, Splash Poke, Central Social Hall, Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, The Common, Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips, Allegro Italian Kitchen and Hoang Long Casual Fare.
Given an equal concentration of decent eateries at the other end of the High Level Bridge leading into Old Strathcona, is it not time to have informal or formal precinct names, i.e. The Bridge District Downtown and the Bridge District South Side?