The first time we visited Republic Coffee on Walnut Grove, it was clear the place already has a high-profile customer base. Channel 5 news anchor Joe Birch was at the counter. ArtsMemphis CEO Susan Schadt was sitting with a group at a nearby table. Scott Bomar, film-score composer and leader of the Bo-Keys, stopped by.
Republic, which had a previous incarnation on Madison in Midtown, has made a fresh start on Walnut Grove at Racine, just west of the Central Library, in a building with a relaxed, southern-California vibe outside, and a tranquil interior.
On that first visit we had three plates: The Ahab, a traditional combination of smoked salmon, bagel, cream cheese, onion and capers; the Pedro, which is smoked tofu with slaw and chipotle sauce on ciabatta; and the Daisy, a smoked-chicken salad with grapes and walnuts on a toasted croissant.
There are two words that permeate the Republic Coffee menu, and one of them is "smoked." Of the three sandwiches above, the most perfectly realized was the chicken-salad plate. Maybe I was influenced by the tribute to the Slow Food movement on the menu, but I thought this chicken was happily free of that edge I experience as metallic or chemical in some smoked foods. And when a place is generous with its delicately smoked salmon, and chops its onions just before they're delivered to your table, there's not a more satisfying first meal of the day than that bagel-and-cream-cheese combination.
The other, often-used word on the menu is "scratch," as in scratch-made. The description was applied to the bakery cakes -- seriously, is there any other honorable way? -- and the Perfect Cole Slaw and Roman Macaroni and Cheese (and you assume it extends to lots of other menu items as well). On a dark and rainy day I tried the macaroni. It's easy to make a casserole-style item taste great with the wanton use of cream and butter, but, without sacrificing appeal, the Republic macaroni was restrained in that regard, and Parmesan provided a mild tartness.
The cakes here are great. We had strawberry, which was a rich pink and tasted of decidedly fresh berries, and caramel, as pleasingly sweet as the coating on a just-dipped apple. This dessert is $5 a serving, but "slice" is too stingy a word to describe the giant pieces we got.
Food-wise, where Republic Coffee really excels is in its breakfast plates. Our movie critic, John Beifuss, tried the De Niro, which has scrambled eggs, distinctly sharp cheddar and bacon (smoked, of course). It was just uncomplicated, satisfying food. On Saturdays and Sundays, there's a brunch menu that's worth traveling long distances to sample. We had the Prague, which is eggs Benedict with smoked mushrooms and a light-on-the-tongue Hollandaise sauce; and the Madrid, which is eggs Benedict with Black Forest ham. Both dishes were supposed to have asparagus on them, but spinach was substituted because it was the green-vegetable alternative that was fresh and available.
Our plates arrived one after another, rather than at once, which we were told was the result of making all the parts, such as the Hollandaise, freshly to order. I'm happy to sacrifice timing for freshness. These $8 plates came with fruit, perfect biscuits and roasted potatoes with rosemary.
We also tried the strawberry crepe with cream and honey, one of three dessert crepes on the brunch menu. Both the cream and the expertly rendered crepe had a light vanilla flavor.
To talk to Republic owner Chris Conner about coffee is to feel profoundly uninformed on the subject. He honors the coffee bean as wine connoisseurs do the grape, providing single-origin, small-estate coffee, ground and roasted to "profiles" established by experts. (Conner needs to write a pamphlet for the counter explaining the care he puts into the purchase, selection and preparation of Republic coffee).
On a recent morning, before 7 when it was still dark, the restaurant was steeped in earthy scents of roasting coffees and had a womb-like ambience created by the dark brick walls and halogen lights. I paid $4 (!) and got two large cups of the single-origin coffees being offered at that moment: an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, that was described in the tasting notes as having berry flavor and a "surprising" hint of leather; and a Sumatra Gayoland, "herbal" and "musty." Both were elegant and smooth: The harshest moment of my day came when I switched to the office coffee pot.
Address: 2924 Walnut Grove
Telephone: (901) 590-1578
Hours: 6 a.m.-midnight daily.
Handicapped access: Yes
Alcoholic beverages: None yet, but there's no corkage fee if you bring your own wine.
Don't miss: The weekend brunch.
What's hot: The coffee.
--Peggy Burch: 529-2392