On our first visit to Republic, a stubborn band of snow clinging to the edge of an outside wall was melting slowly into small rivulets of water. It was a sure sign that the long winter was over at last.
Across the street, and up and down the wide avenue, the struggle has been with far more than with winter. For a few decades, this area has been dominated by blight, a bad economy, and lack of jobs.
But now, there is a new noise that’s been injected to the stillness and quiet of former used auto parts/muffler shops and padlocked storefronts, up and down Detroit’s broad avenues.
Something a little crazy is happening just a few blocks off Grand Circus Park at Republic, one of many new restaurants in downtown Detroit.
And people are eating it up in droves.
Republic, which opened in mid-February, has the energy and feel of a just-erected frontier outpost, a culinary cavalry troop camp of chefs, managers, and waiters rushing about their tasks, conscious that they’ll have another full house that evening. After all, that’s the way it has been since they opened.
Republic occupies the ground floor of the triangular former Civil War veterans club, which sits on a little island where three downtown streets intersect: Grand River, Cass, and Adams avenues. It is the Grand Army of the Republic building, referred to simply as the G.A.R.
The imposing structure looks like a castle transplanted from some Scottish moor, with its Braveheart medieval-style turrets and tall windows. It is constructed from great slabs of reddish-gray granite, and a massive arch that was once a horse carriage entrance called a porte-cochère is still visible on the outside but has been incorporated into the modernized ground floor.
Chef Kate Williams’ cool, smooth “casual-modern tavern” with fine dining, as she calls it, is located in the smashingly restored late 1890s landmark, which until recently had been boarded up and forgotten.
The principal owners, Tom and David Carleton and Sean Emery, reportedly bought the building from the city for $220,500, restored it (renovations are still being done on the second and third floors), and moved their own media production company Mindfield to the top floor.
The interior of Republic has the feel of the modern tavern, which it is intended to be, with dark oak flooring laid in a herringbone pattern. A U-shaped white marble-topped bar dominates the room, with 20 seats or so, while three areas that surround it seat a tad more than 50.
During our visit, bartenders moved around the bar in almost balletic movements, as they carefully measured, poured, mixed, and stirred concoctions into silver shakers, rhythmically shaking them maracas-style. Drinks were strained into a factory line of waiting martini-type glasses, dotted with the correct fruit — a slice of orange, a lemon twist, a pluck of mint, a candied cherry — for the final step to becoming gimlets, martinis, Manhattans, and sidecars.
The menu at Republic is brief and eclectic, and it evolves from today’s food ethic favored by many serious young restaurant chefs: know your suppliers, know your growers, know your animal farmers. Even get to know the animals you will be serving while they are alive, know how they have been treated, and what they have been fed, and train your staff to treat it all with utmost care and reverence, all the way to the dining room table.
Williams butchers entire carcasses of meat herself and uses everything, not just in dishes, but also in stocks, reductions for sauces, and soup bases.
Vegetables served at Republic come mostly from urban farms in Detroit and surrounding cities.
The menu is designed largely around the concept of small, shared plates, what used to be called simply appetizers. They now dominate many menus and are prominent at Republic.
In style, Williams’ food is a blend of folksy American home cooking, but with a flair that suggests it was done by a European with non-American twists. Rabbit potpie? Beef tallow fries with aioli? Steak tartare with tarragon and apple? It’s all delicious and works, making a menu that’s different from today’s repetitive bistro-gastro-pub-trattoria-glamorias.
“The tartare is from Europe,” says Williams, who spent part of her culinary education in Copenhagen, Denmark. “The Danish do this great raw meat on a sandwich. It’s delicious, so I wanted to do my own perfect tartare. But I also wanted it to be very light.”
The potpie is very homey. With a nice thick pie crust, the dish arrived tableside in a black cast-iron pot, straight from the oven, little whiffs of sweet celery and licorice steam rising from a hole in the middle. Break the crust, and inside there is a thick white-ish gravy, little red pepper and pork belly dumplings — looking a lot like gnocchi — and pieces of celery roots and carrot, together with dark, shredded rabbit meat. This is what the word “savory” was intended to describe. Soul-warming food.
“I like to cook food that feels good,” Williams says. “This menu is very personal for me. The ‘Chef’s Whim’ potatoes, for instance, is a version of how my mother made it when I was growing up. And the brown-bread ice cream idea came from when my brothers would break up graham crackers and put it in ice cream. I loved that taste.”
Williams is innovative, edgy even: bone marrow fritters, rutabaga, lamb bacon jam, house jerky, and pickled shallot. That’s all in one dish. The beef tallow fries with pepper aioli have a distinct taste, imparted by the tallow. A terrifically bright and unusual dish called simply “lamb loin” consists of smoked leek confit, charred cipollini onion, corned lamb fat, and chocolate jus. It all works confidently and well.
It takes new eyes, freshness, and sense of opportunity to do a restaurant like Republic. Detroit these days is a blank culinary canvas on which a chef, with a good kitchen and the physical space, can think and be as creative as she wishes. Which is also very much why Detroit has become such a curiosity to European artists and why some have moved here.
It’s a fascinating new time in Detroit.
1942 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-446-8360. D Tue.-Sun.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.