Spirited Away to 14th Street

by Andrew Marder

I can't imagine I'll actually die here. There's probably some system in place at restaurants to revive idiots like me, right? I have never been more interested in the emergency preparedness of a business than I am at this point in time, sitting among the stills of District Distilling, stuffing my stupid face with food.

At one point in the dinner, another diner noticed that I was cleaning my plate with every course.

"You're eating all of it?"

"Am I not supposed to?"

No. I was not supposed to. Or maybe I was supposed to, but only because it's a sort of social experiment wherein the chef wants to know what true gluttony looks like.

By the time this whole thing wraps up, I'll barely be able to take a single bite out of one of the most gorgeous, Scarlett Johansson-esque chocolate chip cookies I've ever seen. I take that one bite only because the woman across from me effectively dares me to.

"You don't want to be the guy who bails out of the marathon at 24 miles."

So instead I opt to die at the finish line.

Let's run it down. Deviled eggs, smoked rainbow trout on homemade cheese crackers, pork trotter fritter things, foie gras on toasts, fried chicken on a biscuit with pickles and honey, shrimp toast with a quail egg, pork shoulder poutine with bourbon gravy, shrimp and grits with tasso ham, suckling pig on Carolina Gold rice with beans, a crème brulee yeasted doughnut, and the crazy cookie with a side of milk.

This embarrassing list doesn't include all the liquor and mixed drinks that I managed to gullet, either. I've edited it down for clarity and to keep a small dollop of my dignity intact, though there seems little room for it in my system.

It was worth it.

There were points in the proceedings where I told myself, "I'd die for this man." Chef Justin Bittner (nee Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar) cares deeply about the food he makes. Touring of his prep kitchen is like stumbling through the evidence dungeon of a serial feeder, who lures hungry people into his unmarked van and then, inexplicably, feeds them.

He's smoking meat in one corner, making his own hot sauce with hatch chilies on a shelf, freezing cookie dough pucks in the walk-in, and there is - and I'm not making this up - a beat-up, rolling suitcase full of god-knows-what in the fridge.

I feel bad that I've gotten this far and haven't talked about Matt Strickland. It's just that, when you've come so close to death, you tend to forget some of the details along the way.

Strickland is District's distiller, formerly of Nashville's Corsair Distillery. In most books, there's the crazy guy (Bittner) and the sane guy. District Distilling has two mad scientists, instead.

Strickland has copper stills and stainless steel vats towering over him like boozy skyscrapers. The copper column still has two trunks that run up from the distillery into the restaurant upstairs, dotted with portholes that allow you to watch the liquor being produced. It sounds confusing, but it's a striking image.

District Distilling opened with four spirits - vodka, gin, a blended whiskey, and white rum. They're all excellent. The standout, to me, was the rum. It's a crystal clear spirit made with panela and the flavor of that sugar shines through.  There was also a rye in the works, and even without any age on it, it was excellent.

I didn't die. There was a moment where I thought, "This would be an alright place to fall asleep forever in," but then I remembered a party I was supposed to go to and decided to live.

I ended up with a to-go box for some cookies and an unearned and imperfect sense of accomplishment. Sure, the woman across from me had stood out in the cold all night to cover reactions to the election in front of the White House and slept something like 30 minutes. That's impressive - I guess.

I, however, ate a whole bunch of incredible food while downing awesome drinks. So, really, who's to say which one of us is most dedicated to the pursuit of the Truth?

If you need me, I'll be not eating for the next six months. So I guess you'll find me at the bar.