Soft openings tell you a lot. In the best-case scenario, it all goes off without a hitch. The second-best scenario, I think, is one where you have a lot of problems and mistakes. Soft openings are meant to show you what you didn't think of, which is why I pushed my visit back to after Repeal had been through their week-long soft opening. They, too, had pushed it back, for reasons that I assume fall under normal new restaurant kinks and quirks. Good thing, too, because I came away from the dinner on Monday pretty content with the service, food, and interior at Repeal.
It's decked out on the inside with a lot of dark wood and crystal chandeliers, and the warm light coming in from the wall of ancient windows makes the place feel warm. The ice hanging from the ceiling automatically makes you feel a little underdressed, and it would be an impressive-looking spot to take a date.
But one thing stood out above everything else: Some damn good cocktails. I had previously chatted with bar manager Eli Sanchez about his shrubs and the menu he'd been developing for the new place (which you can listen to on The Mouthful podcast at nuvo.net/food), so I was excited to taste the finished products. We each tried a different cocktail, and found them all to be a perfectly balanced blend of sweet, sour, and booze. He does a great job of incorporating elements like egg whites, which gave my sour cocktail an unbelievably velvety mouthfeel. They've got a cocktail for lovers of the unusual, as well as their best-selling Sour Puss, a deliciously sweet and tart strawberry cup of sunshine. The use of throwback ingredients like egg and vinegar shrubs gives the menu a truly unique identity, and I keep finding myself craving that sour-sweet flavor that struck an oblique note on the palate.
I also keep craving that side dish of peas. Peas?! Yes, the peas stole the show. They're just sauteed in butter, with sliced almonds and light shave of white chocolate. And they were so damn good. Though I have to disagree with our server that you wouldn't notice the white chocolate. You noticed the white chocolate, but it was subtle. Same thing with the blend of funky cheeses that make up their shells and cheese, of which you got a mouthful of both rich, creamy, melty goodness and the grownup spike of bleu. Next time I go, I might just order a bowl of peas, a bowl of shells, and a couple of cocktails. That would be living my best life.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We got the beer cheese appetizer, as we had some little people with us (the restaurant is divided into a family section and an over-21 section). It was just meh: The cheese sauce had a so much flour in it that it was more of a cheese-flavored roux than liquid-ish cheese. Plus there just wasn't much to it for the price. The "beer cheese incident," though, was really the only dark spot.
With the entrees, we split it up into different proteins. My steak was cooked actually rare (as in dark blue-red in the middle and seared on the outside), which made me feel like Snoopy when he floats and claps his feet together with joy. It was served with some preserved mushrooms, and I was really happy with the generally un-screwed-around-with flavor of the steak with the acid from the mushrooms. The trout was also really good, moist and buttery. The crab fritters were more like giant hushpuppies than the crab and shrimp fritters I'm used to from the northern Florida coast, but they were nonetheless totally decent. As far as the entrees go, they were all pretty good. It's just unfortunate that they had to share the spotlight with the Sam Rockwell of side dishes and cocktails: Total scene-stealers. And since all the main dishes are served standalone, I'd suggest ordering a few side dishes to share.
I'll be back to Repeal, more than likely, but I'll be there to have an excellent cocktail and a really good pre-drinking heavy snack before I go out in Fountain Square. Would I choose it above my other options for a multicourse dinner in Fletcher Place? Probably not. But that doesn't mean Repeal can't continue to build on its solid stable of dishes and outstanding cocktail program and turn it into a destination for sophisticated late-night dining, which is sorely needed in that neighborhood.
The short version? Get a cocktail, try the fish, and order the peas and shells. There's plenty to recommend at Repeal.
Where: 630 Virginia Ave.
More info: 1205distillery.com
Food: 3.5 stars
Cocktails: 4.5 stars
Service: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 5 stars