11/21/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chef Walter Manzke's REPUBLIQUE Is Finally Open -- Hurrah!

I have a compulsion to be first at theatrical events, at heralded places and especially at new restaurants. Perhaps it's a character flaw, or alternately, it might be a sparkling attribute. There are arguments -- pro and con -- that a reviewer should give a restaurant a few weeks or even months before doing a comprehensive review. Then there are those -- like me -- who believe that if a restaurant opens its doors and does business at full price to the public, then it is fair game for a professional reviewer. So there I was on Friday night, the second soft opening evening for the long-awaited flagship of Chefs Walter and Margarita Manzke at their REPUBLIQUE (624 S. La Brea Blvd., half a block above/north of Wilshire Blvd.(310) 361-6115), in the former Campanile location. They have been doing some 10 days of soft openings, with 50 people each night allowed to reserve via Open Table. Then on November 25th, it opens full-bore for dinner every night but Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. I understood that the menu was somewhat limited (not noticeable) and the service might be spotty (it certainly wasn't), but I had to be there to see what the charming couple and partner restaurateur Bill Chait had wrought. My conclusion: It is simply the most awesome, exciting opening of the year and my readers well know there have been some wonderful restaurant openings this year.

Chefs Walter and Margarita Manzke in their new restaurant.

The rotisserie chicken was my choice of a main course.

...while this onion-bacon tarte flambee was one of our starters.

Editorial transparency: I have been friends with Walter for many, many years. He is the first of my select group of Chefs to be followed wherever they go, and I could detail his accomplishments, from Patina to Bastide and then Church and State. But as he told me in a frank conversation on Friday, this new eatery is the crowning accomplishment of he and Margarita, his Philippine-born wife of some years. She told me that her family was safe in Manila, but she had many friends suffering from the fierce typhoon of last week. Marge and Walter, along with her sister, have two Wildflower restaurants in Manila and are about to open a third, so they have spent many long months there recently.

Katie Sticksel (of Spago) is now the general manager here.

I want REPUBLIQUE to be an American version of the wonderful French 'bistronomies' which many well-known chefs have been opening in Paris in recent years, smaller, less-expensive versions of their starred restaurants, with lots of classic bistro dishes in a relaxed atmosphere, casually elegant, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I know exactly what he means. I only had to look around at the splendors he and his family had created at the epiphanous location on La Brea, still celebrated as the home of Charlie Chaplin's film studio in the late '20s. Remember when Nancy Silverton and her then husband, Mark Peel opened the La Brea Bakery here? Then came the wonderful Campanile, which Mark ran for several years while his then ex-wife Nancy went on to sell the bakery for a big price and opened up the Mozza group with Mario Batali et al.

The Roasted Cauliflower Salad was Penny's main course.

...while I had the classic bistro dish of moules and frites.

I mentioned that Republique is a family-born enterprise, and as Walter walked me through, he detailed why he said that.

My father is a retired engineer living in San Diego, but he worked here for a year on rebuilding much of the furniture and infrastructure. My brother, who is part of the team which makes the Predator drones, did these fabulous functional stools. They're like precision instruments.

Walter went on to tell me about the large shipments of weathered Philippine mahogany they brought in, and then showed me the 5,000 tiles on the floor from that country. "My father built many of the heavy tables from that beautiful wood -- those cabinets and counters." By then we were walking through the state-of-the art kitchen where I was curious about the many high-tech playthings there. (A grown man is oft judged by his adult toys.) An amazing long stove specially built by Viking, a new style of convection oven, the huge bakery oven imported from France for Margarita to make her incomparable breads and pastries. There were two wood-burning ovens for pizzas and roasts; I made a note of the rotisserie turning with chickens, and knew what my main course tonight would be.

One more surprise in an evening filled with them. As I entered, I spotted Chef Walter speaking to Rory Hermann, formerly the Exec Chef at Bouchon Beverly Hills and a longtime friend. "What are you doing here?" I inquired, "I thought you were in New York." He replied modestly, "I decided to come back to lend them a hand." Thus, another skilled hand in the kitchen. At that point a smart-looking woman server approached and gave me a hug, Kelly from Bouchon had followed Rory here. And then there is the general manager of the restaurant, the amazing and attractive Katie Stricksel, from Spago, now ensconced here. When you visit, you will undoubtedly be greeted by this so-efficent and utterly charming host.

The charcuterie platter is a very popular starter.

While I was walking through the magnificent establishment with Walter, my dinner companion of many years, Penny McTaggart, was perusing the menu and marking out some of the dishes she thought we should try this first evening. From long experience I knew to trust Penelope's judgment about food and menus, for she has an unerring instinct for spotting the best and most interesting items on a carte. "So what are we eating tonight," I inquired, and she suggested an assortment of bistro dishes which would give us a sense of what was going to come out of this much-heralded kitchen.

Penny is an aficionado of duck confit so I knew we would be starting with that dish: Here it is, a liberty duck leg version ($19) served with baby turnips, Fair Hill Farms' Fuji apples and mustard greens. I knew that the beef tartare ($18) would be up to par, so that was my opening choice. It came with tarragon aioli, pickled red onion and delicious just-made potato chips. Next visit will see me sampling the many oysters from the raw bar in front ($3.50 each). Hamachi crudo ($19) and gulf white prawns ($16) are other choices. I had seen a tarte flambee in the oven and we ordered the one with caramelized onion and applewood-smoked bacon ($16) although I really wanted the duck gizzard version but Penny shook her head no. I told her that I was certain there was no other restaurant in town offering a duck gizzard tarte, but she remained firm. My stalwart companion also does not eat any shellfish "with a hinge" so I was on my own when I ordered the mussels and fries ($16), a bistro standard. These were those tiny, plump mussels I so prefer over the larger New Zealand variety and prepared in white wine with a touch of garlic, were superb. The fries were a revelation, for I abhor fries which go limp after a few minutes out of the fryer; these remained crispy the whole course of the dinner. I was shown the charcuterie platter ($24) and I salivated at the choice of meats and cheese on it. Walter and I had discussed his famous escargots en croute ($12), and these were available this night, tinged with garlic and parsley. I spotted an interesting dish on the menu and must remember for my next visit: crispy pork rinds ($9), with a chile-vinegar dip.

Salads and vegetables are a standard on all bistro menus, and here they were all interesting. Penny ordered the roasted cauliflower ($12), which came in a bowl with lentils, Singapore curry, hazelnuts, Medjool dates...not my cup of tea, but she loved them. I choose the wild arugula ($12), with Asian pear, sunchokes, almonds, pecorino cheese and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Superb. Also available was a roasted artichoke ($11), crispy brussel sprouts ($14) and roasted squash agnolotti ($18).

I had just reviewed The Church Key, where the chef's signature dish was a wild Tai snapper, so was pleased to see that Walter, too, had chosen this delicious fish for his menu. The Wild New Zealand Tai Snapper ($28) was served with chanterelle mushrooms, lemon confit and grilled maitake mushrooms. There's a roasted Maine lobster ($49) yet to be tried from the wood-oven. My chicken ($29) was the mainstay of the meal for me. It's a Mary's Organic bird, one of those free-range ones, cooked on the rotisserie and served with baby kale, and fingerling potato gnocchi. Moist, flavorsome, it was one of the better chicken dishes in memory (and the leg made a wonderful lunch on Saturday.) I was attracted to a dish which a neighbor was enjoying, and noted it also for next time. Pork chop and pork belly ($38) from Cook Ranch, served with braised cabbage, oven-dried grapes, with a peppercorn sauce. It looked awesome.

Two other meat dishes were celebrated: beef short ribs ($36) served a la Bordelaise with carrots, bone marrow and shallots. And there is a beef rib eye steak ($51) grass-fed from the Strausss ranch, with its bearnaise sauce and fries.

I had admired Marge's baguettes as I entered, and inquired about bread not being served, and was told by server Andrew that it had to be requested. So I suggest you do so when seated. They will be starting the breakfast, brunch and lunch service here in mid-December, when you can stop in for a cup of coffee and some of her wonderful bread and pastries. I remember fondly when Walter was the three-star chef at the much-missed Bastide and Marge was the pastry chef there. (Did you see Jonathan Gold's Saturday review of Mari Vanna, the Russian place which has sadly taken over the Bastide space. So unfortunate, shame Joe Pytka.) Here, Bill Chait told me that the large rear room will be open early in the new year, with a more formal atmosphere and reservations accepted. A chef's tasting meal will then be forthcoming.

Margarita's fruit tart looks good enough to eat.

With such a talented pastry chef in the kitchen, one does not ignore this portion of the menu. I was shown a selection of her astonishing tarts: dark chocolate ($10) and fruit ($9), but the moment I saw the apple crisp ($10) I knew it was mine, and it was luscious, especially with its Calvados ice cream. But then the chef sent out something so interesting and exciting I must comment on it: a sage panna cotta ($10), made with butternut squash and pumpkin seeds. It was a rich cream and unusual in its sage flavor and I will definitely order it again.

As an objective reviewer (yes I am!), I must comment on one other aspect of my dinner, At the bottom of the menu is a statement: "A Three Percent 'Healthy L.A.' service charge will be added to your bill. This will help us to provide health insurance for our entire staff. Please adjust your gratuity accordingly." I had forgotten about this note until I got home and looked at my bill, and there was a Surcharge Healthy L.A. amount added after the subtotal and tax. It was $4.73 for my check. Now, of course I am not adverse to seeing that the staff gets health insurance, but I question whether any restaurant has the right to charge its guests for this. I welcome comments from my subscribers on this matter.

I am thrilled at this wonderful addition to our local dining scene. These three people have given so much to us all over the years that we should now celebrate their crowning achievement with REPUBLIQUE. It is a delightful, delicious experience and I look forward to seeing you there often.

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