If reinvention is as American as Apple Pie, then the capital would have to be Los Angeles – where dreams are made, shattered and reconfigured between a jog through Runyon Canyon and a tall, wet, white, decaf, no-foam, percent, vanilla latte on Sunset Plaza. Like any other business, restaurants are hardly immune to the competitive pressures of new entrants and fickle loyalties – regardless of how unrelenting their meteoric success might have been. While cooking-show super stars were being created a mere mile up the road, no one noticed that the first darling of SoCal’s seasonal-sustainable discipline, Campanile, fell victim to waning interest. But the good news is that République has breathed brand new life into what was once the Charlie Chaplin building on the edge of Hancock Park. Walter Manzke (formerly of L’Auberge Carmel, Patina and Petty Cash Taquería) has performed a spectacular transformation, not only with tiles from the Philippines, wood from Thailand (for the lengthy communal tables and even lengthier charcuterie boards) but also by cracking the cloistered space wide open, and relocating Chaplin’s iconic tiled fountain to enhance the super-bistro’s curb appeal. Manzke and pastry-chef wife Margarita have created robust-flavored pan-European plates from France to Alsace to the Italian Riviera (and beyond) accompanied by an exclusively French yet approachable wine list with a handful of cheerfully curious cocktails that include Absinthe, Serrano chillies and Pandan leaves as ingredients.
As you walk in, a very respectable selection of bi-coastal oysters greet you (where the bakery used to be) along with a tempting glimpse of pre-baked dessert tarts and a row of imported tulip-bulb shaped dollops of fresh Normandy butter. The menu is broken down more by kitchen department than digestive courses, with separate sections for Bread, Steak Frites and Savory Tarts. Most portions are sharable and the wait staff shines at taste timing and course choreography. And here’s the best part, not only is the shelf-life for any menu item dictated by its availability, but many of the preparations are frequently reinvented (I assume due to diner indifference or kitchen fatigue or both) leaving a menu perpetually brimming with highly popular and difficult-to-make decisions.
Must-have starters include the pastry covered Escargot, the Thai-inspired Charcoal-grilled Prawns and two incredibly flavorful crudos: the impeccably balanced Hamachi with fire and freshness from pineapple, passion fruit and fresh jalapeño, and the lightly smoked Tasmanian Sea-trout in a wonderfully light (yet creamy) leak-and-potato mousseline (whipped egg-white sauce) with green apple gelée. Our waiter very accurately defined the Grass-fed Beef Steak Tartare as follows: “They didn’t reinvent it or anything – they just nailed it!” And nail it they did with dill pickled onions and a take-no-prisoners mouth-watering tarragon aioli.
The Nueske’s Tarte Alsacienne is a traditional, thin-crusted savory flatbread drenched in melted gruyere cheese over soft caramelized onions and heavenly strips of chewy bacon.
The rich, sweet and juicy Australian Lamb Rack is presented in a cast iron pot over nuggets of lamb shank and a wintry mix of beans, tomato and zucchini. As a side, we had to sample the irremovable menu fixture Wood Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts, which are deliciously browned with apple-wood bacon and a soft poached egg.
Most of the desserts include seasonal fruits as inspiration around tarts, pastries and puddings, and the cheese menu includes local and European options with a couple of seldom-seen raw-milk choices.
And so while it’s tough to let go of my many recollections of Campanile and their impossible-to-get-into Thursday night grilled-cheese heyday fests, I couldn’t help finding myself in total embrace of brand new memories at République.