What Makes Re:Public So Good (Despite the Unfortunate Colon)
The giant naked cherub ended up in the hallway. The people of South Lake Union's new restaurant Re:Public were divided on the painting's artistic merits: Some loved it, some hated. So, a server explains, it got hung where you can see just its chubby feet and the tips of its wings. The evidence that it's a boy is out of sight unless you look up on your way to the restroom. "It's a conversation piece," the server says and laughs.
Otherwise, Re:Public pretty much leaves the conversation up to you. There is the name, of course: The wisdom of a restaurant name with a colon in it is open to debate. (It's meant to signify both the cross street, Republican, and "Regarding the public," putting the focus on those served.) But other than the mostly obscured cherub, the space is mercifully uncomplicated. There's no installed rusticity, no mismatched, uncomfortable chairs or pressed tin; it in no way resembles a speakeasy; it is not generic ground-floor-condo-building contemporary-sleek. There is no communal seating. The kitchen is not open.
There is a roll-up door across the whole front—the one-story building dates from the 1920s—and a scarred concrete floor, some exposed brick. A giant wooden beam traverses the distant wooden ceiling, and the lightbulbs have pretty filaments. The walls of the big, deep room are deep brown or dark slate blue, and a row of wooden booths (the best seats in the house) are painted glossy black. When the SLUT rolls by, it's a brief, bright-orange eclipse. That's about it for color, except for two flat-screens over the bar, which might silently, distractingly broadcast a football training camp or professional poker.
The TVs should always show the crazy daredevil air race that was on one recent evening, in which pilots flew small planes through an obstacle course mounted on the water right next to a city. The planes would buzz frantically toward sets of two close-set huge orange pylons, turning vertical at the last possible second to go between them (or "knife-edge flying"); grandstands of screaming crowds on shore nearby seemed to invite crashing-into. It had an unexpected mesmerizing quality: the planes like toys with their telltale smoke trails, then sudden close-ups of the pilots sweating bullets but completely focused in their glassed-in cockpits, narrowly avoiding disaster over and over again.
Some of the food at Re:Public is thrilling in something of the same way: feats of flavor that seem like they could go terribly wrong until the last possible moment, when they do a neat trick and right themselves on the other side. Chef Martin Woods came from Bastille and Cantinetta; he's learned his French and Italian well, and he's now ready to mix things up with the help of sous Dave Lamping, from Bastille and Zoë. The crispy pig tail is destined to become the place's most talked- and blogged-about dish; Re:Public, which is doing the local and organic thing, takes one end of snout-to-tail literally with this $6 bouchée ("mouthful") course. It's like a mini corn dog, with the tail just a meltingly creamy-fatty memory of meat sealed inside a small tube of deep-fried goodness. It's served with a dab of whole-grain mustard vinaigrette and half a soft-boiled egg. If this dish were any bigger, it would veer into fried-and-fat overload; as it is, you still might want to share it, because just a bite or two will let you honestly say that you love pig tail.
The kitchen's pushing the envelope on smoky flavors with its opening menu. (Dishes will rotate in and out slowly, and the menu is noteworthy for its brevity: four entrées, three pastas, 10 small plates. It's diverse, so you never feel any lack of options, but small enough that everything is abundantly thought-through and exactingly executed. More places should tighten their menus thusly.) Two tartines spread with white-bean puree, layered with smoked tomato and a couple white anchovies each ($6) fill your whole head with acidic, concentrated smokiness; the vinegar from the fish chimes in, with the puree making a quiet but luxurious bed. Woods and Lamping are smoking the hell out of those tomatoes, until you just taste the sweetness on the other side. These tartines might be over-the-top, but with a crisp white wine or a beer, they are an ideal summer snack.
An octopus appetizer ($7) is also an experiment in smoke, with two encircling arms of firm, grill-flavored meat; chorizo that's also smoky, chopped and cooked hard like bacon bits; and marinated chickpeas, all lodged on a base of chickpea puree with a swath of verdant chimichurri. No single component is especially compelling, so when you assemble a bite with a bit of everything, it's unexpectedly rewarding, all the textures and flavors conspiring together. A confit chicken leg entrée ($15)—the skin delicious without being especially crisped, the meat falling away when poked with a fork—is accompanied by a smoked corn puree that does all the work of barbecue in a roundabout, wonderful way. (With this: a thyme jus and tricolored baby carrots so little and tender and cute, you feel like a monster for eating them—these are the veal of the vegetable world.)
The house-made pastas also show some daredeviltry. The agnolotti filled with Dungeness crab ($14) comes in a sweet-corn puree made sweeter with sherry, topped with unfashionable mascarpone foam. The eggy pasta, the oceanic filling, the corn and the wine and the whisper of dairy-cream make this an amazement: You first taste a surfeit of sweet, then sea-savory kicks in. A dish of pappardelle with earthy, rustic oxtail ragu ($13) is pushed almost over the edge with also-earthy, musky truffle. Tagliarini ($12) with big oyster mushrooms is inundated in intense lemon flavor. The pasta itself is as it should be coming from a chef who's spent time at Cantinetta—that is, great.
While there's been some carping in online reviews about portion size, Re:Public's plates are not teeny-tiny and the prices are not high. (At happy hour, all five bouchées can be yours for $20—a very worthwhile expenditure. Desserts—really, truly, super-good—are $7 or less at all times, or all three for $13. There's also lunch for under $10.) Service is not necessarily lightning-fast, nor well-informed on wine, but it is always pleasant.
It should be noted: Re:Public can slightly miss the mark, depending on your predilections. Maybe you don't love lemon quite enough to be entirely enamored of the tagliarini. Or the ham broth (and the big chunks of Carlton Farms ham) that the halibut ($20) comes with is oversalty for your taste. But the lemon still makes your mouth more awake now than it's been in forever, and the halibut is perfectly golden-roasted. Nothing ever crashes and burns. A little riskiness might be what your old favorite restaurant was missing.