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First Look: République is Walter Manzke's Big Bistro Return to L.A.

"Eggs on Toast" [Photographs: Clay Larsen]

Chef Walter Manzke has always been a Southern California boy at heart. The San Diego native has worked stints inside some of L.A.'s finest restaurants, including Patina, Bastide and Church & State, and loves to focus on the region's bounty of fresh, local fare when putting together a menu.

But despite his interest in local ingredients, Manzke's cooking is driven by global influences. The chef has spent countless hours working the line at international dining destinations like Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and the vaunted El Bulli in Spain. With his wife Margarita, Manzke has opened a pair of successful bakery-cafés in the Philippines (with more on the way) and recently brought a sense of second-level Mexican food to Los Angeles with the opening of hip casual taqueria Petty Cash. But République is Manzke's true return to form, in the city that helped to shape him. And he couldn't have picked a better building to stage his latest venture in.

"This is the most spectacular building in L.A.," Manzke says of the La Brea Boulevard space that gave birth to La Brea Bakery and long-running Campanile. "Nothing compares to its grandeur and history." That's a fair statement, given the space's previous life as Charlie Chaplin's offices before it became one of the city's most beloved restaurants. To help bring back some of the old charm, Manzke's nearly year-long rebuild process opened up the wings of the stone and glass space, heightened the room by clearing out any overhead clutter, and gave the long, wide building plenty of depth, thanks to outsized windows at the front and long, heavy communal tables that stretch the middle.

The menu is also a return for Manzke and his wife Margarita, who runs the bread program at République. "I wanted to return to simple cooking with great techniques," says the chef. "The menu offers a lot of familiar French flavors, but with a focus on what we can find at the farmer's market that day." That means Escargot en Croûte ($12) on one plate, Wood Oven Brussels Sprouts ($14) on another, with entrées that range from Steak Frites ($18) to an ink-black Risotto Nero ($19).

The Manzkes also hopes to stay put for a while, after bouncing from place to place for the past several years, cooking and consulting and opening their ventures in Manila. With the extended build-out at République and soaring expectations that have leading up to the opening, Manzke now seems content to sit behind his open kitchen counter, tossing oak logs onto the open-flame rotisserie and remarking to anyone in earshot about how beautiful his new restaurant truly is.

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About the author: Farley Elliott is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. He writes about strip mall food for LA Weekly and covers the LA beer scene for KCET.

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