I suppose by now it’s an established fact that travel enhances the senses and leads to all kinds of exciting culinary discoveries. This is certainly true of the intimate dining universe of New York City, where people tend to circle in their little neighborhood orbits. As a result, you’re always hearing tales about the perfect slice of pizza in distant Flatbush, say, or the incomparable samosa in far-off Jackson Heights. I’ve had inedible samosas in Jackson Heights, as it turns out, although I couldn’t help thinking about this strange correlation between distance and satisfaction as my taxicab wound its long, circuitous way up toward Republi’K, which opened recently at the tip-top of Manhattan, in Washington Heights.
Washington Heights, until now, has been a land largely devoid of ambitious, upscale restaurants. Republi’K (pronounced “Republica”) is the brainchild of a local club owner, Marino Jimenes, and his chef, Ricardo Cardona, who spent his apprenticeship with various high-flying Nuevo Latino chefs, including Douglas Rodriguez. Their establishment has a sleek marble façade, which manages to look almost bleak among the vibrant jumble of liquor stores and Dominican beauty parlors along Dyckman Street. Inside, there’s a bar set under a painted topiary of exotic trees, and a snug little dining room decorated in the neo-Scarface style, with violet banquettes and tables topped with glittering crushed seashells.
"Republi'K's impressive pork shank was so massive that my friend the pig nut consumed only about a third of it before giving up in dismay."
Cardona’s cooking style, called cuisine criolla Latina (criolla means elegant or stylish), is supposed to mirror this flashy motif, and, at least in the early going, it does. The first item to arrive at our table was an artful selection of seviches: One delicious variety (from Ecuador) was seashell-pink and loaded with fresh shrimp; another was Peruvian, with soft strips of salmon dunked in aji peppers and lime. Next came a freshly made arepa, or corn cake, piled with a mound of pulled short ribs braised to a melting sweetness in a mixture of bay leaves, dry chilies, red wine, and veal stock. Best of all were the warm, crispy-soft corn empanadas, stuffed with spiced chicken, lobster and shrimp, or beef, each laid over dabs of guacamole or pico de gallo or cream.
Emboldened by these successes, we ordered the impressive baby pernil (pork shank), which was so massive that my friend the pig nut consumed only about a third of it before giving up in dismay. Cardona’s skirt-steak churrasco—accompanied by three chimichurri sauces for dipping—was more manageable and equally delicious, but, sadly, my Chilean sea bass (served with corn pudding) was soggy. Dishes requiring a similar light touch tended to have similar problems. The house paella was bountiful but excessively steamed, the salmon tasted oddly fishy, and my neighbor’s stuffed lobster tail was doused in a sickly tomato concoction that could have been pilfered from one of the Chinese restaurants down the street.
To take the edge off these local specialities, you can do what I did and start swigging inventive house cocktails, like spicy margaritas rimmed with cayenne pepper, or the superb mango colada, which is thick as porridge—it’s laced with condensed milk—and poured in a tall, frosty milkshake glass. Most of the desserts at Republi’K also have a candied quality. There’s a decent version of flan with a hard, almost enameled caramel top, and a somewhat leaden guava bread pudding made heavier by a layer of plantains. The house specialty is a decorative, creamy Dominican dessert called morir soñando (“to die dreaming”). This layered orange-sponge-cake confection looked (and sounded) better than it tasted. Not that it really mattered. In the grand traveler’s tradition, I devoured it whole.