A cigar people's "Republic" in Los Angeles.
It's about 100 degrees throughout greater Los Angeles and my buddy and I are walking into what seems like an arctic chill. A strong air conditioner is a good thing. I am curious, however, as to (1) how the blonde sitting at the corner of the bar is staying warm when she is wearing what appears to be not enough and (2) why the fireplace is going strong at Republic, a self-described restaurant-lounge on "Los Angeles' hip dining row on La Cienega Boulevard" -- also a description found on the Republic web site.
In truth, the La Cienega corridor seems in constant transition. Fine dining is still just steps away from a strip club, but what's also true is that the corner of La Cienega and Melrose Place has significantly improved since Republic was reincarnated more than a year ago.
Republic has won awards for its design and, while the general feel is very familiar to anyone who has been to higher-end clubs in Southern California, there are notable charms. The floor-to-ceiling wall of wine is impressive, if not unique. (We did not get to see the hoisting of a woman on the pulley system to retrieve a bottle from the summit.) The bathrooms are well conceived for maximum socializing, with the sinks outside of the gender-specific compartments.
The challenge that Republic takes on is to succeed as both a restaurant and a lounge -- which means that on some nights it's also a club, mainly upstairs. The second-floor M Lounge overlooks the dining room. The private lounge has "alligator leather print wallcovering." (I'm just letting you know since the Republic web site makes a point of letting you know.) Now, and this is where I come in, Republic is seeking to become a destination for cigar lovers by converting its patio on Wednesday nights. This should prove a very welcome offering, especially in cooler weather.
The space to the south of the main dining room is only technically not an indoor room, what with skylights semi-open to the sky. That, in part, is what allows Republic's visitors to smoke cigars while being served innovative food from the kitchen of chef Arturo Paz. Paz displays touches of his significant culinary experience on the dinner menu at Republic. To classify the cuisine risks inaccuracy, but I'm characterizing it as a successful mix of New Orleans-meets-Puerto Rico. Of course, the menu also borrows from Asia, the Southwest and other regions. No worries. It's pretty much all good and leans heavily toward proteins that amply complement any cigar choice.
On this particular night, we are in the hands of Brian Lenzo, the general manager, as he explains what the cigar night is all about. He's mostly letting the bar and menu do the talking. We are offered 21- and 30-year old Glenfiddich, a special tasting from the Scotch maker. We are poured white and gold Clement rum from Martinique. We are shown the cigar menu, but decline, not wanting to smoke while tasting the food. Then, the chef abuse begins.
Chef Paz starts us off with Fanny Bay oysters and "huge" chilled shrimp, served with a sour apple mignonette and Bloody Mary cocktail sauce. The shrimp are very large, but stay moist. The oysters are mild, fresh, cooling.
We are then dared by a platter of "first impressions." Mesquite-seared albacore sashimi sitting on a lemon-ginger guacamole with a soy gastrique is worthy of a plaque. The mini Maryland blue-crab cakes are breaded with Ritz crackers, a method Paz says he learned when he worked for Phillips Seafood back East. They rest on a pink peppercorn tarragon tartar sauce with lemon confit. I don't remember having these so intricately prepared in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but who's to say you can't improve on a classic? The third item on the plate is a grilled artichoke and roasted baby beet salad, very delicately dressed with truffle pecorino and accompanied by petite greens in a lemon vinaigrette. The fourth appetizer is easily the most whimsical and possibly most impressive concoction on the menu, lobster corn dogs.
My experience teaches me corn dogs generally are not laudable. I was prepared for a coarse, thick, gummy batter that would completely obliterate the lobster. Fortunately, Republic's kitchen has a deft touch and recognized that we were not at the Texas state fair. The coating on this dish is fluffy, but has enough texture to protect the white, glistening lobster meat inside. This combination is not going to overwhelm you, and if you like to enjoy a cigar while you eat, my suggestion is to wait until you've had at least a bite of this dog and to dip it in the creole honey-mustard sauce.
Next comes a small piece of the pan-roasted Chilean sea bass atop smoked Beluga lentils, garlicky spinach and topped with crispy leeks. I would not likely ever order Chilean sea bass (technically known as Patagonian toothfish), but the top of this filet is nicely caramelized and the leeks are perfect.
I'm not recommending you eat this way when you visit Republic -- or anywhere else for that matter -- as you tempt severe discomfort by the end of the evening, but you might want to know that Republic offers a very good dry-aged, mesquite-grilled New York strip steak. This night, we have it with a drizzle of a veal stock-red wine reduction. Alongside comes a bulb of roasted garlic. Lenzo makes sure we try the creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms and smoked cheddar macaroni and cheese. The sommelier picks out a 2000 half-bottle of B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Estates Cabernet Sauvignon.
How are you holding up? We've got only two more dishes before dessert. Just for yuks, we tuck into a couple of beautifully grilled Colorado lamb chops. The flavor just pops. Remarkably, we have the temerity to request a taste of the mini pulled pork "sliders." But just one, please, not the three promised on the menu. Of course, all three come out. They are advertised as coming with a "Carolina mop," but very sweet barbecue sauce coats the shredded pig. Nothing bad, just a little more sugar and less vinegar than you might have expected if you grew up, like I did, IN NORTH CAROLINA. It is nicely balanced by a big slice of sour pickle inside the little brioche. Excellent contrast.
Desserts play well with cigars also. Three appear tonight: a warm molten chocolate cake with a caramel ice cream on top; a really firm bread pudding with vanilla ice cream; and a trio of flans -- espresso, mango and vanilla -- in espresso cups. Please, bring me an espresso and light my cigar before I eat anything else.
Ultimately, Republic certainly succeeds as a restaurant. Lenzo is planning to add a giant flat-screen TV to the patio for Monday Night Football. That will invite great possibilities, not the least of which is introducing Republic to a new clientele, one that is not looking to make the club scene, but is looking for a relaxed, comfortable place to enjoy great food and wine.
One improvement that could be made is to the cigar list. Right now, the selection is mostly from big producers. Changes are in the works. The quest is to make sure that the cigar menu matches Republic's aspirations to the eclectic evident throughout the restaurant. Now, let's talk about the guy with the velvet rope at the front door.
Alejandro Benes stays cool as a writer and businessperson in Southern California.
Republic Restaurant & Lounge
650 N. La Cienega Boulevard (corner of Melrose Place)
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Web: www.therepublicla.com (check out the wine list)
Fri -- Sat: 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. or beyond
Entrée prices range from $31 to $50
Club nights: Bottle service is $300 per bottle, two-bottle minimum
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