A young, brooding Marco Pierre White stares out over the bustling dining room of République. The huge black-and-white photo above the bar catches the legendary London chef at his most intense: cigarette dangling, brow heavy with genius. République chef Walter Manzke put the picture up just a few weeks ago, part joke, part homage. It adds a touch of anarchy to the otherwise dramatic, soaring, elegant space. But White's pensive gaze could be seen as a metaphor for the massively heavy history that weighs on this restaurant — the talent, the greatness, the love, the loss.
The 1929 building breathes stories of Hollywood legends and culinary royalty, beginning in 1929 with Charlie Chaplin, who built it. It's most famous as the longtime home of Campanile, which was founded by then-married Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, and stood as one of L.A.'s most important restaurants before closing in October 2012 after 23 years.
Taking over a space with this much glorious baggage requires either extraordinary hubris or an extraordinary project, or maybe both. Never one to shy away from ambition and flash, restaurateur Bill Chait stepped up the challenge, along with husband-and-wife team Walter and Margarita Manzke.
It took more than a year to revamp the restaurant, to open it up and glass in the front, to add a bar and kitchen space that seems to wrap around the entire dining room. Much of the grandeur of the space remains — how could it not, given the nature of the property? As with Campanile, the main part of the dining room lies in what was once the building's courtyard, and you dine surrounded by the spectacular facade of Gothic stonework. It's a gorgeous space, a fantastic, dramatic melding of history and modernity. It's hard to think of another restaurant even remotely like it.
République was a long time coming for Walter Manzke, who has been pursuing his own restaurant since leaving Church and State in early 2010. But in many ways, République is the culmination of a lifetime of work, which includes Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo and stints as chef at Patina and Bastide.
Throughout, Manzke's medium of choice has been French cooking, from haute cuisine to modern French to the straightforward but impeccable brasserie fare at Church and State.
That's true here as well. Yet from ice-cold oysters through soft scrambled eggs on toast topped with sweet, saline uni, to a dry-aged, 32-ounce, $125 cote de boeuf, République has the potential to be just about any restaurant you need it to be on any given night.
A lovely thing about Paris or New York that L.A. lacks is an abundance of places to pull up a solitary seat at the bar and order a bowl of moules frites and a bracing glass of Muscadet. At République you can do just that, and they might be the best frites I've had this year — generous and crisp, served with addictive garlic aioli. The mussels, from Maine, are as plump as cherub cheeks, doused in garlic and white wine.
On his charcuterie plate, Manzke delves deep into the philosophy of country pâté, serving a selection of at least five stunning versions, from pig to venison to duck and back again. The best taste on the board, though, is the duck liver mousse, which straddles the silken line between liver and dessert in the most seductive way possible.
Bread, pastries and desserts are courtesy of Margarita Manzke, a gifted baker in her own right, and you can tell the dedication and quiet talent here simply by ordering bread and butter. Better yet, order the wood oven pan drippings, an idea so brilliant I'm surprised this is the first time I've come across it. Somehow, the kitchen gathers the meat drippings from everything cooked on the wood fire, and they're presented to you in a small, cast-iron cocotte along with a length of baguette, crusty and pliant. It's basically bread and gravy, and also the best thing you'll have this (or any) week.
Margarita Manzke's rustic desserts are often easily the highlight of a meal here, her Meyer lemon tart a masterpiece of puckery goo and dense crust, her bombolini a perfect hybrid of doughnut, profiterole and chocolate hazelnut ice cream confection.
The menu veers toward decadence, and it's probable you'll end up with a meal so rich that you long for a snap of something fresh. You are likely to be seduced by charcuterie followed by a wondrous crisp patty of pig's head topped with a fried egg and, oh, maybe a side of bread and pan drippings for good measure. Of course, this is up to the customer: It's absolutely possible to order a balanced meal here, but keep in mind the downside of all these heavier offerings — if you order just the things that call to you, you might find yourself with salty meat on top of salty meat with some gravy thrown in.
So take a detour for the refreshing white salad, a jumble of endive, cauliflower, fennel and hazelnuts, with Parmesan cheese and Meyer lemon for pert contrast. Or, along with your melting braised short ribs with polenta and porcini in red wine, have a salad of Little Gem and wild arugula. (I'd love to tell you that the bitter chicory salad is also palate-cleansing, but the copious bacon bits keep it from inhabiting that particular role. This is a menu with a soul made of fat.)
I've experienced some of L.A.'s smartest, most affable service at République, particularly from wine director Taylor Parsons, formerly of Spago and Mozza. Given the chance, he will walk you through his outstanding list with infectious gusto. But there were nights when it took 35 minutes for our (fantastic) cocktails to arrive, when I had to flag down floor managers to order dessert or pay my bill. This is a massive operation, with a team of incredibly dedicated professionals working their asses off. But it's possible to fall so far through the cracks here that an otherwise lovely evening succumbs to irritation.
The Manzkes are rolling out République's various features slowly. At launch, in November, they were open for dinner only, with limited choices. Then the menu expanded to its current lengthy form, and after that they opened in the morning for daytime coffee and pastry service. Still to come: Sunday service (they're currently closed that day), breakfast, lunch, and a separate area where more formal, tasting-menu dining will be available. It's a little mind-boggling, considering this is already one of the most ambitious operations in town.
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It will be fascinating to see what République becomes when breakfast and lunch begin, when it takes its throne as the brunch madhouse it's destined to be, and particularly when those tasting menus roll out, which have the potential to take this experience from gratifying to truly thrilling.
The line our best chefs are walking between casual and fine dining is somewhat of a puzzle these days — it may be that the Manzkes will crack the code with a restaurant that offers two distinct but congruent experiences: a lavish tasting menu for the right occasion, and some pan drippings and charcuterie for a more informal evening out.
Regardless, République is already an incredibly compelling restaurant. It does its vast ancestry, from Charlie Chaplin to Marco Pierre White to the obvious legacy left by Campanile, quite proud.
RÉPUBLIQUE | Three stars | 624 S. La Brea Ave., Hancock Park | (310) 362-6115 | republiquela.com | Open at 8 a.m. Mon.-Sat. for pastries and coffee; Mon.-Wed., 6-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | Entrees, $16-$58 | Full bar | Valet parking