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How The District Fuses Vietnamese & California Flavors
By Jen Jones Donatelli, LA Confidential

May 11, 2015

 

Sea and be seen! The District’s black cod dish, canh chua, marinated in tamarind and served in a tomato herb broth with sweet and sour vegetables, is a favorite of the restaurant’s buzzy clientele.

It’s fitting that a massive communal table repurposed from a 280-year-old hand-carved Vietnamese door serves as the centerpiece of The District; after all, owner Hannah An envisions the recently opened restaurant as a gateway to the traditional Vietnamese foods of yore.

“On my last trip to Vietnam, I traveled off the beaten path and tried so many great traditional dishes that most restaurants don’t make anymore,” says An. “I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to marry these flavors and herbs with the amazing proteins and vegetables of California? It was kind of perfect.”

An’s epiphany was enough to inspire her to leave her family’s successful business, House of An, and start her own solo venture. The leap was a significant one—An had essentially grown up in the kitchen of her family’s first restaurant, San Francisco’s Thanh Long, and since 1991 had been an integral part of running the six House of An restaurants (including Crustacean and Tiato in Los Angeles).

“Crustacean is a 40-year-old brand, and everyone knows it, but with a new brand, [diners] are more open to trying new things,” says An, 50, of her choice to go solo. “While Crustacean offers more of a French-Vietnamese/Euro-Asian flavor, [The District] serves Vietnamese comfort food and dishes I developed using the traditional, authentic flavors of Vietnam.”

Among those dishes are banh beo (steamed rice cakes with mung beans and shrimp); cha ca (turmeric-crusted Chilean sea bass atop rice vermicelli noodles); and canh chua (a sweet-and-sour black cod in tamarind sauce). Careful attention is paid to making sure the dishes are all-natural, with no artificial flavors, sugar, or MSG added; pho selections are instead sweetened with bone broth, anise, and radishes.

That approach also translates to the cocktail program. David Shoham, beverage director, favors fresh juices and organic agave over artificial sugars and syrups and makes many of the bitters and tinctures in-house. (But that’s where the “PC” part ends—the drinks have names like Face Down in Saigon, Love You Long Time, and Hot Asian.) Shoham also makes an effort to incorporate Vietnamese flavors, using lemongrass-infused vodka and chili agave in the Hot Asian, and Kaffir lime leaf tincture and guava agave in the Guava Rita.

Hannah An, who left the family business to start her own food empire, is offering authentic Vietnamese fare made with American flair.

“Hannah’s bringing traditional Vietnamese [fare] but with an American twist, and I’m trying to do the same with the cocktails,” explains Shoham, who hails from Nikita Malibu.

The District debuted with a soft opening in February, though one wouldn’t have guessed it wasn’t yet full-blown: In its first few weeks, the restaurant averaged 40 to 75 walk-in guests per night and hosted large-scale events like Indiewire’s post-Sundance party, a Hidden Beach fête for Grammy nominee Angie Fisher, and a pre-Oscar party for TheWrap, attended by nominees like Patricia Arquette and Richard Linklater.

The ambitious ramp-up seems typical for An, who doesn’t appear to do anything half-baked. She worked closely with designer Kenneth Ussenko to realize her vision, which included capturing the various districts of Vietnam in a visual sense. (For instance, the oversize Edison bulb lamps in the downstairs dining room are a nod to the lanterns permeating Hoi An, while the dark wood accents and white onyx bar upstairs recall Vietnam’s French Colonial era.) “[An] is literally an expert in all areas,” says Randy Allison, assistant GM and events director. “I’m learning things from her daily.”

Allison adds that An keeps with her at all times a top-secret notebook containing recipes that she’s cultivated over the years. “It’s like her bible,” shares Allison. “Hannah has been carrying these recipes around with her until she was able to create her own space in LA—they’re all her own creations, so she keeps it under lock and key.” That element of discretion may be a carryover from House of An; after all, Crustacean is famed for its “secret kitchen” (to which only immediate family members and longtime staff have access). “There are certain spices and herbs that I won’t teach all of my chefs,” admits An. “It’s important to keep the integrity of the dish.”

While some of The District’s dishes are rooted in family recipes, An is quick to distinguish her new offerings. “Growing up in Vietnam, I learned so much from my grandmother and my mother—how to make pho, cook fish, work with clay pots—but I have the benefit of having also grown up in America,” says An, who moved to the States from her native Vietnam at the age of 11. “I’m able to take those recipes and enhance them with my own interpretation; The District marries the best of both worlds.” 8722 W. Third St., LA, 310-278-2345

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