When Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel opened Campanile in 1989, it was a signature made-in-L.A. occasion. With Silverton focused on La Brea Bakery, Peel—who’d worked at Chez Panisse, Michael’s, and Spago—took California cuisine in a personal direction, honing an Italian-leaning style that was as dependent on the cargo of an Oxnard farmer’s pickup as anything from the Italian canon. The tarragon-speckled butter lettuce was pristine; trenne, the triangular pasta quills he seared like potstickers, lolled in beef ragù sharpened by bitter greens. The prime rib was perfumed by grill smoke, a blend of chopped black olives and brothy flageolets adding a complex harmony. Lunch meetings, family-style dinners, a friend’s pre-wedding feast—for more than 20 years Campanile could make every visit memorable. ¶ Now another couple—Walter Manzke and his wife, pastry chef Margarita—is copiloting the space. Partnering with Bill Chait (who’s also behind Rivera, Short Order, Bestia, and Sotto), they opened République in November. To their credit, the trio has been respectful of the iconic aspects of the building, originally owned by one of Charlie Chaplin’s ex-mothers-in-law when the central dining room was a courtyard. There may have been remodeling, but there was little demolishing. The kitchen, which used to be half hidden, has become a wraparound hive of activity, while the bar stands front and center rather than occupying a side room. (Manzke’s father and brother designed the wood-and-metal stools.) Running the length of the high-ceilinged hall, a communal table hums with diners. Probably the most striking change for diehards is the tiled Moorish fountain, which was moved from the dining room to the exterior, where two giant commercial mixing bowls stand sentry.
In the morning customers traipse past the steel urns to get a pecan sticky bun or to select a flaky crescent from the mass of croissants on the counter by the entryway, a La Marzocco loudly frothing milk for a cup of caffe latte. Unembellished and perfectly executed, Margarita’s pastries embody a rustic style that was forged by Nancy Silverton in this very room. At dinner, out come the grape or dark chocolate tarts along with Cape Cod Wellfleet and New Brunswick Beausoleil oysters, a cook pouring ice atop the bivalves as general manager Christian Philippo and assistant general manager Katherine Sticksel (the Bazaar and Spago, respectively) lead diners to their seats, the Pretenders providing the soundtrack.
Before he was chef at Patina in the mid-’90s, when it was still on Melrose, Manzke did a stint at Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, and he focused on haute-rustic French cooking at Bastide on Melrose Place for a spell. Heading a charter member of the downtown restaurant renaissance, Church & State, for one-and-a-half years, he shifted to elevated brasserie cooking, with its splays of frites and stacked fruits de mer. The guy has earned his Gallic stripes. So it was a surprise when he resurfaced earlier this year on Beverly Boulevard with Petty Cash, a taco joint in a fun house mirror, where cheese-filled churros and pig-ear nachos appear on the menu alongside weird combinations like chicharrónes with sea urchin-laced guacamole.
Pop the hood on the kitchen at République and you see a similar sense of adventure. Manzke serves agnolotti, a kind of ravioli, stuffed with delicate butternut squash, giving the Italian dish a California sheen with drifts of hedgehog mushrooms. The effect is similar with the incredibly light parsnip ravioli. When I break the egg yolk at the center, it oozes into the finely chopped beet greens as the shaved pecorino melts. Earthy diced pancetta sets the whole thing in motion. In the pig ear salad, soft, delectably gristly ear strips contrast with the snap of a Thai-style slaw of raw root vegetables electrified with a chili vinaigrette. For the pig’s head salad (modern bistro cuisine is nothing if not a series of appendages), he forms a crunchy yet succulent puck from morsels of slow-cooked meat—something Manzke might have tasted in his wife’s native Philippines—and anchors the frisée with lardons of smoky bacon, an egg, and pale, serrated chicory leaves.
But despite the cultural wanderings, République is French at its core. Named after a busy transfer point for the Paris Métro, it’s one of the few places in town where you can go from garlicky escargots ensconced in cute puff pastry shells to a spit-turned chicken (the accompanying potatoes roasted in chicken fat) to an aged wedge of runny Époisses from the cheese board. All you need is a chorus of striking transit workers marching down La Brea for the moment to feel more Parisian. The côte de porc isn’t just a chop; it’s served alongside crisped pork belly and the totally gnawable bone from which the meat has been cut. Rubbing a forkful of tender belly and roasted Fuji apple in the peppercorn sauce makes for an incredible compound. I only wish Manzke didn’t wrap the salsify in bacon. The minerality of the root could have been wasabi to the pork’s toro.
For any combination to make sense, there has to be an inner logic to it. Served sliced in a lustrous red wine sauce that’s been finished with bone marrow, his version of steak frites is great. But the ramekin of butter-freighted béarnaise that rides shotgun—where does that fit in? It seems like a real why-not-throw-it-in gambit: too rich for the fried potatoes, too late for the already sauced meat. It’s a minor misstep compared with the bouillabaisse, which is presented here more as a haute bisque than the lusty Mediterranean chowder it’s supposed to be. Granted, the rockfish the Marsellais claim is a necessary ingredient for the fisherman’s stew might be hard to come by, and not every authority is d’accord with adding the jigger of Pernod some recipes call for. But Manzke’s version seems kind of joyless. A ladle’s worth of broth pools beneath fancily arranged jumbo shrimp, mussels, seared daurade, and sculpted potatoes. Where’s the steam? Where’s the garlic, paprika, and cayenne that usually go into the rouille? Where’s the abandon?
Manzke has said that with République, he intends to borrow a page from the 1990s “bistronomie movement,” which saw establishments like L’Epi Dupin on the Left Bank return French cuisine to its modest roots. For those principles to truly propel République, indeed for it to be an L.A. version and not a simulation, Manzke has to be driven by at-hand ingredients rather than distant lore. He proves himself more than capable with dishes like the roasted cauliflower. Using a puree of butternut squash warmed with Singapore curry to fuse oven-charred lobes, roasted hazelnuts, and pitted Medjool dates, he layers sweet and salty, crunchy and pliant, for a delicious unity between kernel, floret, and fleshy fruit. Perhaps even more impressive are the chive-flecked scrambled eggs he scoops over baguette segments and crowns with tangy Santa Barbara uni. It requires superprecise timing to get scrambled eggs right in such a busy restaurant. If allowed to cool slightly, they wouldn’t tee up the brine of the sea urchin as they do.
For a dish like that, beverage director Taylor Parsons might recommend a glass of the pale-as-fino Marsanne blend from Provence’s Domaine du Bagnol to prolong the flavors. A big, bearded former jazz pianist, he holds himself by the table like the president of the Chowder Society about to kick off the annual banquet. And why wouldn’t he? His list compresses everything you could want onto a single page, from small-production champagne to interesting pours by the glass to bottles with a little age on them to real finds like the dry apple, pear, and quince cider made by Switzerland’s Cidrerie du Vulcain. The Irancy he pours pushes pinot noir northward from Dijon toward the region of Chablis, tying a satiny bow around the flatbread of chanterelles and confit onions dripping with melted raclette. Wow.
No flash, all quality, intelligent inventiveness, drop-dead technique: That’s the best of modern dining for me, and those smarts shine in Margarita’s desserts. When there’s time, the waiter pre-sents the tarts on a board (a clever adaptation of the old-school rolling dessert cart). I love the griotte version; embedded in a frangipane, the brandy-preserved cherries take on burnt sugar notes from the darkly baked pie shell. Forming a link with the morning pastry counter, the bombolini—slightly more pudgy and firm than éclairs—are cross-cut and plugged with hazelnut ice cream; after delivering them, the waiter drizzles a creamer of hot chocolate over the crackled domes.
It’s a pleasant bit of theater amid the bustle. Looking up from the show through the skylight, I can just glimpse the turret that inspired Campanile’s name, which always gets me thinking about what came before République. Campanile was a uniquely L.A. restaurant, elegant yet relaxed, with an unremitting emphasis on local seasonal ingredients that Californians take for granted today. The kitchen—perhaps even that very grill—is where talents as established as Suzanne Goin and as promising as Chi Spacca’s Chad Colby polished their skills, enriched by Peel’s contention that a cord of San Joaquin Valley almond wood was more crucial than anything flown in. So do I get sentimental here? Sure, but Manzke honors the history by creating such a thriving space centered on the joy of good, impeccably sourced cooking.
624 S. La Brea Ave., Mid City
Best dishes: Grass-fed-beef tartare, roasted cauliflower with Medjool dates, forest mushroom flatbread, parsnip ravioli, pork chop with peppercorn sauce, cherry tart, bomboloni with hazelnut ice cream
Drinks: Exceptional wine service, full bar
Atmosphere: Convivial and crowded
Noise Level: Loud
Kid Friendly? They’ll probably enjoy the morning pastries most
Price Range: $8 (bread with butter) to $150 (36-oz. côte de boeuf)
Hours: Dinner: Mon.-Wed., 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Pastries available from 8 a.m. to closing
Parking: Valet, $6.50
Credit Cards: All major