Jeff Black has a rule: His restaurants must reflect the neighborhood they’re in. So when the owner of BlackSalt, Black Market Bistro, Black’s Bar & Kitchen and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace opened his latest outlet, in liberal Takoma Park, he furnished it with lots of reclaimed pine and packed the menu with vegan-friendly eats.
He also gave his new project a name that poked gentle fun at the nuclear-free Washington suburb: Republic, as in the Republic of Takoma Park, the city’s well-known tag.
The scene, illuminated with fixtures made from jet engine parts and dressed with a banquette made from old Victorian sofas, suggests “American Pickers” helped shopped for it. The restrooms are noteworthy not just for their interiors, one plastered with images of Johnny Cash, but for their signage. One door reads “women.” The other is marked “anyone.” Score one for the ladies. (Or should that be womyn?) Come warm weather or March, Republic will add 35 seats in the form of an outdoor patio set off with a big sign from the previous occupant, Video Americain.
The cocktails sport fun names and significant flavor. First among equals is Fascist Killer, a coupe rich with bourbon, green chartreuse and Amaro Averna, the Italian spirit. But Republic takes all its drinks seriously. The bar manager is former brewery worker Brett Robison, who offers six local draft beers; the robust java comes from Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis.
Chef Danny Wells, a native of Takoma Park and a veteran of the Black Restaurant Group, pilots the kitchen (and enjoys partnership in Republic). His menu is sprinkled with reminders you’re eating at a Jeff Black enterprise, starting with the excellent oysters on the half shell, so fresh and briny you really ought to decline any interruptions but lemon. “Addie’s” buttery mussels pay homage to the cozy Rockville restaurant Black closed in November, while the lemony wood-grilled sardines hark to the always-hopping BlackSalt in the Palisades. Mahi-mahi and other fish are cooked with care.
There’s plenty to get vegans in seats here, and kudos for the white bean puree that comes with the bread basket instead of butter. Most of the deliciousness is found among the side plates, which could easily play the part of entrees, given their complexity. “Ancient grain” salad brings a fluffy mound of quinoa, wild rice and farro with pops of flavor from pomegranate seeds, fresh mint and a topping of lacy fried shallots. Beluga lentils taste imported from a favorite Indian restaurant, and chickpeas tossed with kale and brightened with orange zest can be just as tasty sans the bits of prosciutto the dish is laced with on the standing menu. Carrot soup sweetened with rummy raisins is sometimes good, other times mute. Always, I like the crunch the bowl gets from pumpernickel croutons bobbing on the surface.
I never thought the day would come when I tired of Brussels sprouts, but it’s time for another vegetable to get some love from restaurants. At this point, if McDonald’s started serving Brussels sprouts, I wouldn’t be surprised. “My roommate hates them, but he likes these,” a waiter says of the side dish offered at Republic. The half-compliment is explained when Brussels sprouts over-coated in Parmesan and spiked with smoked paprika show up; the seasoning masks the flavor of the cruciferous vegetable.
Republic’s top sellers turn out to be meaty: braised short ribs and a hamburger. The former is a rib-sticker of tender beef, soft gigante beans and smoky collard greens. The sandwich packs a juicy patty, shaped from local ground chuck, inside a toasted pretzel bun slathered with aioli. Yes, it’s messy, but the burger is also good enough to compete in any future hamburger contests. Insider tip: Onion rings can be added to the construction for no charge, but only if you ask.
Wood-grilled chicken with a garden of vegetables is satisfying, but it would have been nice to know ahead of ordering that the house-made chicken sausage on the plate contains pork. (The thyme-veined link goes down like bratwurst — snappy and delicious, in other words.)
In its first weeks, the kitchen did a better job with starters than with main courses. Indeed, a wimpy Portuguese-style stew with none of the promised heat — and seafood that smacked of fatigue or worse (lighter fluid) — was one of the sorriest dishes of my 2013. To its credit, the restaurant asked if we wanted a replacement the moment we pointed out our disappointment, and removed the entree from our tab without anyone having to ask.
Mistakes happen; it’s how a business reacts to problems that makes or erases consumer confidence.
Desserts lean to the familiar and the American, albeit with slight twists. Republic’s moist carrot cake, served with dulce de leche ice cream, makes room for parsnips in its layers, while chocolate hazelnut truffle cake crackles with a garnish of hazelnut brittle. Originally vegan, the apple pie now uses butter in its flaky crust and comes a la mode. This diner appreciates the slice for its restrained sweetness.
Like almost every new dining draw, this $2 million baby is a pain in the ear. The least offensive section is in the back, near the kitchen, with a few high-topped communal tables serving as refuge.
With the introduction of Republic’s patio, Black wants to fill the space with live music, a prospect that has aroused considerable interest from locals. “Everyone in Takoma Park plays an instrument,” says the restaurateur. Is that a sigh I hear on the phone when he tells me how many people have shared their abilities with him? At any rate, he plans to hire a music coordinator.
The sound of music this spring brings up another Black mandate: “We’re still a restaurant first.”
And a most wanted one at that.
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6939 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park.
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10 a.m.
to 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Lunch appetizers $5 to $11, sandwiches
and entrees $12
to $18; dinner appetizers $5
to $13, entrees $13 to $24.