Ian Thomas doesn’t set out to create a signature dish—it’s more an act of spontaneity, a dash of chance.
As the Executive Chef of The District restaurant explains, anyone can create an elaborate, beautiful-to-look-at dish—but it takes “real genius” to craft something that’s straightforward, yet elegant and, most important, delicious. “The simplest dishes usually become the signature ones,” says Thomas, who is most inspired by French and Asian fare.
And in The District’s case, simple and signature are synonymous with fresh and local. The Portsmouth restaurant, which opened its doors in July 2011, has wholeheartedly dedicated itself to using in-season, from-scratch ingredients grown, raised, and caught locally. Menus change with the seasons, using fruit, vegetables and meats culled from roughly a dozen farms in New Hampshire and Maine, as well as seafood from area fishermen. The restaurant even enlists a local mushroom forager.
“We say we’re seasonal—no joke, our food menu changes twice a week,” says David Takis, who co-owns the restaurant with Kelly Gove. “If we can’t get it fresh and local, we won’t have it on the menu.”
Coming in from the bustle and din of Portsmouth’s Congress Street, visitors are greeted by a warm and welcoming atmosphere—soft hanging lights, a polished concrete bar, muted redbrick walls featuring a rotation of local artists. And when the weather’s right, The District offers patio dining. It’s open for lunch and dinner.
For a starter, you might consider a Goat Cheese Salad with seasonal fruit, drizzled with 18-year-old balsamic dressing. Or there’s a Farmers’ Market Salad, bursting with local lettuce and vegetables. Other staples include Crab Cakes. The Braised Short Rib Taco has Asian flavors, with a Korean barbecue sauce, house-made kim chi, and an apple slaw.
For the main course there’s the sumptuous Rib Eye Burger—available for both lunch and dinner—served with perfectly melted Maine cheddar cheese, a side of delicious hand-cut fries, and the restaurant’s Farmers Reserve ketchup, with the choice of a fried egg or maple-cured bacon as add-ons. Beyond that, there’s an ever-changing medley of chicken, duck, beef, and seafood dishes mixed and braised with in-season vegetables, sauces, and other sides.
Signature spring ensembles may include a Tuna Tartar, with edamame, red onion, and fresh herbs. Spring Lamb Pierogi, meanwhile, features wild Vermont ramps and a Chantenay carrot sauce. Then there’s the Butter Poached Local Cod, served with a sorrel puree and fresh morel mushrooms.
Desserts offer heady seductive enticements, like the Belgian Chocolate Overload, a rich espresso brownie served with stout ice cream, a pistachio truffle, and hot chocolate. Carrot cake is transformed in a Butterscotch Trifle, layered with pumpkin mousse. Warm Gingerbread has a rich molasses flavor that matches well with the accompanying bourbon eggnog ice cream. Definitely worth saving room for.
As for drinks, The District serves local beers, including several from Peak Organic Beer in Portland; Smuttynose Brewing Company and Redhook Brewery, both in Portsmouth; and Berkshire Brewing Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. The wine list includes similarly local names and changes four to six times a year, according to Takis.
When it comes to cocktails, the springtime Rhubarb Mojito is popular, a fresh mixture of pureed local rhubarb, clementine vodka, cane sugar, local mint, fresh citrus soda water, and Sprite. “It’s a really refreshing cocktail, great on the patio,” says Takis. Other signature drinks include the District Martini, made with Cold River Gin and garnished with a Gorgonzola-stuffed olive, and the X-Bellini, a mix of X-Rated Fusion Liqueur, prosecco, and seasonal fruit. Thomas notes that most cocktails are garnished with fresh local basil or other herbs often grown in his or other chefs’ gardens.
Visits to farmers’ markets and informal chats with local growers inspire Thomas, a graduate of Atlantic Culinary Academy’s Le Cordon Bleu program. “We are a from-scratch restaurant,” he says. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
103 Congress Street
Photography by Tony Scarpetta