Tapas on Tap
República brings an urban vibe and Spanish tapas to the Seville-inspired Country Club Plaza.
It’s only appropriate that the Spanish-tiled, -towered and courtyard-filled Country Club Plaza, whose storybook architecture was inspired by Seville, Spain, should lure a sophisticated Spanish tapas den to its mix. Bread & Butter Concepts, the local restaurant group behind such slick eateries as Gram & Dun, Taco Republic and Urban Table, is the force behind República, which is helmed by executive chef Bradley Gilmore of Gram & Dun and Robert Cantú as chef de cuisine. The latter is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and has worked at perhaps Dallas’ most revered restaurant Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek — no stranger to Latin-inflected cuisines. And with a grandfather who emigrated from Spain to the U.S., Cantú’s focus on Spanish cuisine can be seen as a nod to his own heritage.
Despite the peasant-like, simple bar food origins of Spanish tapas (originally conceived as bar snacks served atop bread that conveniently covered one’s glass of wine in order to keep the flies out), República is more urban/contemporary than country-rustic in design and menu. The industrial-chic space is dark and moody and low lit — the lighting dimming further as the night progresses. Rustic wood tables are paired with sophisticated, tufted black leather booths that curve and cool campaign chairs. Sexy lantern-like light fixtures are suspended over these booth nooks. A large mural of flamenco dancers adds sultry heat to the lounge area. Tall vases of flame-colored gladioluses on a communal table overlooking the open kitchen add to the elegant vibe. A wall of glass porrónes, used to serve cava (Spain’s version of Champagne) functions as installation art. And the buzzy patrons on the late summer Thursday night that we visited were also rather sophisticated — some hanging at the ample bar, which serves bargain $5 sangrias at happy hour, rather than the usual $8 glass, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; others filling the dining space. They seemed an equal mix of business and pleasure.
The libations menu is an important element of the República scene — after all, tapas were born as bar food accompaniments to lusty Spanish wines and cocktails. Expect an ample list of mostly Spanish wines by the glass and bottle, as well as Spanish sherries that range from sweet to bone-dry and about six craft cocktails. There is also a novel menu of seven custom gin & tonics, which are created with house-made ingredients and served tableside. For example, No. 2 features Bombay Sapphire East with rhubarb cordial, carrot, celery and Fever Tree tonic; while the refreshing No. 7 features Citadelle gin, Colonel Jesse’s lime and lemongrass tonic and fresh mint. The sangria comes in a red (tinto) or white (blanco) version, as well as a seasonal option that, on our visit, consisted of a crisp white wine, strawberry, lemon and Cava.
red and white sangrias
Our table of four sampled a $35 pitcher of the red sangria, delivered tableside in a cheery blue-and-white ceramic painted pitcher, serving about six full glasses. Thankfully, not treacly sweet, the concoction packed some flavorful punch with an infusion of brandy, spices and fresh blackberry and other fruits. We are not sure why the bar and wait staff must wear a silly uniform of vests and Panama hats that seems to conflate style influences that range from Cuba to pre-Prohibition bars, but regardless, the service was friendly and officious.
As for República’s food menu, it is a traditional mix of hot and cold tapas as well as paellas and a few larger entrees. As with most tapas menus, this one is loaded with seafood options (ceviche, oysters, salt cod, gambas and octopus), so diners with shellfish allergies will have to navigate carefully. An extremely simple and traditional order of Pan con Tomate came with the requisite grilled peasant bread slathered in oil, but the heirloom tomato topping was watery and lacking in any piquant flavoring whether garlic, Manchego or even the coarse texture of sea salt which would have done wonders for this dish. All three flavorings are supposedly part of this dish, but that illustrates the difficulty of simple dishes. When so few ingredients are involved, each one must be spot-on. More beguiling was the Beet Asado salad. Though the menu description conjured a plate heavy in roasted beets, in fact this is primarily a greens salad with dainty sprinklings of beets, Spanish sheep’s milk cheese and delightfully crunchy Marcona almonds in a subtle blood orange vinaigrette. It’s a great palate-cleanser for the many protein and carb-heavy tapas on the menu. I will have to return for the huevos diablos: a nod to the farm-to-table deviled eggs trend but Spanish-fied with white anchovy and guindilla peppers. Yes, the República menu contains holy grail tapas like patatas bravas, grilled octopus, croquettes, gambas a la plancha, selections of cured meats like jamón ibérico and Spanish cheeses, and gazpacho, but it also includes some lesser-known Spanish specialties.
caliente rock with strips of raw wagyu beef to cook on the heated rock
The hot tapas portion of the menu offers several variations on flatbread that may seem more Mediterranean than strictly Spanish, but in actuality this is a Spanish dish. Likewise, the Wagyu beef cooked on a hot rock seems Japanese in influence, but Spaniards have been cooking meat on volcanic rocks for centuries. The Mushroom Coca flatbread was tasty with sauteed mushrooms, charred fennel and onion, goat cheese and tomato jam in a sticky-sweet, caramelized sauce, but the bread was a bit thick and chewy. More successful was the Caliente Rock, which creates some fun dinner theater in the interactive cooking of the raw strips of Wagyu on a rock heated at 500 degrees. The lush meat is simply delicious, flavored with a bit of chili oil, and also decadent at $20 a pop for four thin strips of beef with a few roasted vegetables.
The dinner theater concept continues with the grand wheeling out of the still-sizzling pan of paella. The restaurant offers two versions of this Valencian specialty nightly: the traditional rice dish flavored alternatively with seafood, chorizo, or even game birds such as quail, at $12 per person. It is served tableside with the server turning up the caramelized crusty bits at the bottom of the pan before dispensing to individual plates. (By the way, bravo for the beautifully thought-out serving dishes, including the vibrant blue-and-white pottery so evocative of Spain.) Our paella dish easily served four with leftovers. A word of warning: This dish takes about 45 minute to produce, so best to order it the moment you arrive. Our table sampled the Land & Sea version consisting of P.E.I. mussels, Spanish chorizo, chicken, Anaheim peppers and of course the spicy kick of pimentón and perhaps other spices like saffron that turned the rice tawny orange and delicious. And besides, who doesn’t appreciate a bit of tableside dinner theater after so many decades without it? The last time servers (or diners) had this much fun was in the 70s when tableside Caesar salads and flambé Cherries Jubilee were all the rage.
I found the albóndigas (pork meatballs) a bit disappointing in being more dry and toothsome than moist like your grandmother’s. However they were served with lush Green Dirt Farm sheep’s milk cheese and a blanked of tomato sauce to make them a bit moister and richer. I did appreciate the distinctly spicy pepperonata kick of the meatballs, however. Ditto the Bomba Rice Croquettas, supposedly duck fat fried, but again a bit drier and less decadent than expected. A pretty, pale yellow saffron aioli provided the necessary flavoring and lushness. However, the hands down star dish of the night was the wallflower one that looked the most homely on the plate. Not even a sprinkling of green parsley adorned this homely looking dish. A plate of Peruvian purple patatas bravas ($8), which were nonetheless monochrome brown in color, knocked my tastebuds out of any complacency with a complex, umami-like, pungent-sweet, caramelly black garlic and tomato jam aioli. Black or caramelized garlic is milder than traditional garlic, but the overall effect was flavor-packed. Mind you, these are addictive little numbers. I know the whole concept of tapas is about sharing, but you will want to monopolize this ugly-duckling-turned-swan dish.
In addition to serious libations, a cool atmosphere and some flashy dinner theatrics, it is this type of flavor bomb that the patatas bravas delivered that República needs to cultivate to keep the crowds coming with their intermediate to pricy menu items (tapas range from $6 to $20 with most falling in the $8 to $14 range) and competition from other established tapas joints in town. I know for a fact that I will be returning for those patatas bravas alone — well, that and the brandy-laden sangria — perhaps next time eaten simply at the handsome bar.
República is located at 4807 Jefferson St. on the Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 384-2500 or republicakc.com. Valet parking is available nearby at The Capital Grille or at sister restaurant Gram & Dun.