James Republic Counts Down the Days
James Republic, the new hotel restaurant at the Courtyard By Marriott in Long Beach, seems to like its jars. Virtually all of the desserts I tried came inside mason jars instead of bowls. Both the brisk opah poke hiding a base layer of creamy avocado and the seafood ceviche swimming in a tangy tomato broth were served inside French canning jars, the kind with a flip-top lid and metal latches, just for show. The only time the use of a jar felt practical was as the container for the satin-smooth, thick-as-spackle chicken-liver mousse I later smeared on toast with sweetened caramelized onions. But it wasn't until I ordered the twice-baked potato purée—a mashed-potato dish, mind you—that I noticed the restaurant's proclivity toward these thick glass vessels.
Served in a tall, quart-sized jar, the purée reaches about halfway up. In retrospect, it's actually the perfect vessel for the dish: I can't think of a better way for the kitchen to show off that they didn't just make an ordinary mound of spuds. Any old bowl would've hidden the head of foam—yes, foam—and the strata of what's essentially a hot potato milkshake below. But the jar, the foam and the near-soupy consistency of the whipped starch were all by design. It's supposed to make you think of that frothy, ultra-flavorful fluff right beneath the whipped butter on a hot baked potato. And eating it does remind you of exactly that, with every slobbery spoonful flavored by micro granules of bacon and toasted bits of bread crumbs floating in the suspension. The only time I questioned the use of the jar was when I realized my fingers weren't long enough to squeegee every last bit from the bottom.
The restaurant has other lovable quirks. To back up its sustainability claims, James Republic recycles its old menus to use as doilies. And thanks to this ethos—one it seems no new restaurant goes without—the menu changes daily. Named for Dean James Max—the empire-building, James Beard-nominated chef responsible for other high-achieving restaurants—the place counts the time passed since it opened, with its age in days printed atop menus and scrawled on a chalkboard near the kitchen. I visited on days 24, 31 and 32, and how the menu read each day was different from those before or after. On day 24, the Pacific Walu—a beautifully seared fish from Hawaii, with snow-white flesh that's as moist as the meat off a freshly steamed crab—came with hits of sharp goat cheese, sautéed broccolini and splotches of beet vinaigrette. A week later, it was paired with something entirely different.
At my last visit, the massive bone-in Kurobota pork chop, which once appeared with a thyme jus and a grilled peach, now featured apple butter and a grilled apricot. But the supporting players mattered less than that the pork slabs ate as though they were juicy steaks, mostly because they were cooked as such—pan-seared to brownness but left slightly rare in the middle. On day 31, I'd planned to try the crispy buttermilk chicken I saw the day before. But I was too late. I settled for the roasted chicken, which turned out to be bland, served alongside even blander oatmeal. The rustic duck stew that replaced a duck breast from a week earlier was a better, if saltier dish.
Aside from the homemade pickled vegetables, the potato purée and fries served in a greasy bag, only two main dishes seem to have stayed. The grilled cauliflower steak is vegan, but it sounds more interesting than it is. The farro fried rice, which comes with cubed fish and chunks of beef short rib in a bowl that's inexplicably smeared on one side with cashew butter, was an otherwise good interpretation of the Chinese-takeout staple. The requisite amount of wok breath and soy sauce flavored the coarse, nutty chewiness of the grain believed to have once fed the ancient Romans. And so far, I've never had a salad that was less than great here. The best was a grilled asparagus salad that not only used crispy, fried fingerling potatoes as though croutons to good effect, but also proved baby kale is less bitter and more pleasure-filled than its grown-up state, which, come to think of it, also applies to people in general.
For dessert, unlike the ultra-dense and thus misclassified chocolate panna cotta, the warm, sticky toffee bread pudding didn't come in a jar. It's served with a rapidly melting rum ice cream on a plate. I ate it on James Republic's creaky wooden outdoor terrace as I looked toward the street—and forward to what day 50 will bring.
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