Are you looking for the best French fries in Los Angeles? Because the French fries at République are pretty close: cut in long, perfect blocks from fresh potatoes, steamed, slightly dehydrated in a low-temperature oven and then finally boiled in a bath of beef suet and peanut oil until they are tawny and crisp.
You may be familiar with the process of French fry triage, in which you eat what appears to be the crunchiest fry on a plate at the Apple Pan or somewhere, then the next crunchiest and so on, until you are left with the pale, mealy also-rans that you hate yourself for eating. The fries at République are all the best one on the plate, crisp, slightly hollow and a bit creamy inside, straight and uniformly hot — a kind of perfection that can take a minute for the mind to process. Fries aren't meant to be this good, or at least not this consistent.
The herb-frosted New York steak that the fries come with isn't supposed to ease itself under your teeth quite the way it does — grass-fed beef is usually chewy and dry. You don't really need the béarnaise sauce, but damned if you are going to let it go to waste, so you essentially self-baste with the stuff and promise yourself that you'll spend an extra half-hour at the gym tomorrow morning.
If you are a restaurant-goer of a certain age in Los Angeles, you already have feelings about République, whether you've been there or not. The restaurant occupies the building formerly occupied by the beloved Campanile. Its Catalina-tile fountain was moved out into the area in front of the restaurant, old-school hip-hop blares from the sound system and an oyster bar sits where the bakery counter used to be. Josh Schweitzer's iconic blocky lintels have been blown out in favor of sheer open space — the former apartment court, which Charlie Chaplin built for his child bride in 1929, now resembles a soaring medieval banquet hall, dominated by a wooden table that stretches the length of the open kitchen. Prime-time reservations are fairly hard to snag, but there are often a lot of drop-in seats at the bar.
And the chef is Walter Manzke, whose polished, modern cooking you may remember from Bastide and Church & State, and maybe Patina before that. Manzke is one of the few chefs in Los Angeles capable of orchestrating a proper French tasting menu, of commanding multiple Michelin stars. More than one of his followers assumed that République was going to mark Manzke's return to the haute cuisine game after his detours into bistro cooking, the abstracted tacos at Petty Cash and the informal cafes in the Philippines. Fine dining, as opposed to cooking that includes sea urchin in the guacamole, is a neglected art in Los Angeles at the moment.
But Manzke and restaurateur Bill Chait apparently had other ideas — République is a super-bistro, a small-plates joint jacked up on steroids. And your feelings about the restaurant may well depend on whether you mind the $5 supplement for first-rate Normandy butter (ordinary butter is free), whether you consider a small pot of pan drippings worth paying for (you should) and whether you might consider an evening of cheese, cool duck-liver mousse and Margarita Manzke's scorching-hot baguettes to be an evening well-spent.
Walter Manzke's signature, if you can call it that, is the elevation of familiar dishes through mastery of detail, like the Santa Barbara spot prawns kept alive until seconds before they are split and tossed on the charcoal grill, or the blast of fennel in the slivers of pickled onion tossed in with the steak tartare. I suspect that the suave potato mousseline, a side that joins Ludo Lefebvre's purée and Wolfgang Puck's aligot in the L.A. mashed-potato pantheon, is as carefully prepared as the pricey Dover sole meuniére it accompanies, and the amount left in the tiny serving vessel after a normal person has scraped it clean could probably be measured in nanograms.
Tempura green beans, lightly fried in rice bran oil, are tucked between the petals of a nicely folded napkin flower, a presentation both attractive and practical. "Chips and dip" turns out to be a paper cone of the feather-light chicharrones you may know from Manzke's taquería, Petty Cash, served with diced raw Tasmanian sea trout on a smear of drained yogurt with cucumber and mint, like a Mexican/Japanese/Lebanese take on surf 'n' turf.
You do find a lot of big-flavored bistro tropes here, including a patty of fried headcheese on a bed of lentils, Raclette-drenched Alsatian tarte flambé scattered with a handful of chewy bacon, and tiny crocks of snails drenched in garlic butter and crowned with lids of pastry. You will probably want the deeply flavored rotisserie chicken served with wrinkly chicken-fat roasted new potatoes. Manzke is very good at this stuff — so good that it is sometimes easy to overlook the kind, informed service, or even the wines chosen by Taylor Parsons, late of Osteria Mozza, whose list runs from cult natural wines by the likes of Puzelat and Broc Cellars to nicely aged Corton-Charlemagne and Saint-Estèphe. (Parsons is especially good at matching wines to vegetables, which isn't easy once you get past the Gruner Veltliner-with-roast-asparagus thing.)
What is spaghetti carbonara doing on this menu? It's hard to say, but it's a good one, impeccable in its no-cream creaminess. The English pea agnolotti, delicate ravioli touched with Parmesan and mint, taste exactly of spring.
Manzke also does a lot of the crunchy-groove Mediterranean cooking, the wood-roasted Brussels sprouts, cauliflower with anchovies, and grilled octopus with grapefruit and kale that all the cool kids are cooking now.
And Margarita Manzke's urban rustic desserts are terrific, from the cast-iron-baked pies of peaches and apricots to the bomboloni stuffed with hazelnut ice cream; the croissant bread pudding to the handful of Harry's Berries strawberries served simply with mascarpone and a bit of sorbet.
Will République remain populist and delicious? At this point, I'm sort of hoping that it does.
624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 362-6115, republiquela.com
Starters, $11-$19; salads, $12-$19; pasta, $19-$36; fish and meat, $14-$39 (more for large-format dishes); desserts, $11.
Open 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Wednesdays, 6 to 11 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.