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Lofty ambitions

A first look at Repast in Ponce Springs Lofts

Recently, I had surgery on both my knees. I have to wear leg braces for at least six weeks, and I'm not able to walk safely without a walker. Pride and my underestimation of the degree of my immobility led me to refuse the use of a wheelchair.

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So every trip out of the house feels like a major undertaking now. I can't drive, so I lie on the car's backseat while Wayne pilots us to a restaurant.

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The experience — and here's the reason I'm telling you this — has made another aspect of restaurants suddenly important. I'm talking about handicapped access. Now, when anyone tips me off to a restaurant, handicapped access is the first thing I ask about. And I am constantly marveling at the determination handicapped people must have just to get through a damn door.

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But there's also the matter of the gaze — that "Oh, shit" look that people get when limping or paralyzed people with unwieldy contraptions come through the door. Sometimes, it's just a fleeting look. At other times, I feel like I'm Medusa, and I've turned everyone to stone. Then there are the people who are immediately helpful, without even blinking.

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So, fair warning, folks. I'm permanently adding the matter of handicapped access to the features I look for in a restaurant. I'm a bit embarrassed I haven't paid attention to that in the past.

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You can count the new Repast (620 N. Glen Iris Drive, 404-870-8707) among those with primo handicapped access and a congenial staff. Even when I barked, "Hey, I'm a cripple!" to explain why I had to find a seat at the right height, nobody skipped a beat. Yeah, I confess I love doing that, especially when people rudely stare at my shiny walker. Shouting "I'm a cripple, dammit" puts them at immediate dis-ease.

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Repast is owned by a married couple, Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai. They both have impressive culinary backgrounds that have carried them all over the world. Most recently, Truex was the chef at Chateau Elan. Originally from a small town in Louisiana, he worked at Le Cirque while in culinary school in New York. Upon graduation, he moved to Switzerland, and then returned to New York where he worked at a handful of hot spots.

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Obunai is originally from Tokyo. After graduating from college in Japan, she moved to Peru to work for a program similar to the Peace Corps. She learned Spanish, moved to New York and attended the French Culinary Institute, then worked at some classy restaurants like La Caravelle. Got that? Japanese, Peruvian, French.

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Their new restaurant, located in the Ponce Springs Lofts, is a sleek, two-level design that seats 54 in the main dining room opposite the open kitchen. There are 20 additional seats in a loft space and a few more at a curving bar. There are windows everywhere.

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The restaurant barely had been open a week when we visited, so consider this a first impression — a positive one, but not the ultimate say, since we were virtually alone when we dined there last week.

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The menu is hard to characterize. I'd call it a light fusion typical of New American cuisine. It's free of strangeness and gimmicks but has enough surprises, like a macrobiotic composition, to keep you interested. Prices are moderate.

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I started with a bowl of steamed mussels. The white wine broth was flavored with bits of apple bacon and diced vegetables. A unique addition of goat cheese melted into the broth gave it a slightly creamy texture and, with the bacon, an earthy flavor.

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Wayne started with a plate of lightly battered and fried veggies such as eggplant and mushrooms served with Italian parsley dressed with a vinaigrette flavored with Japanese yuzu. A remoulade was on the side for dipping the feather-light, thin-sliced vegetables.

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My entree, Muscovy duck breast, was so good it took me by surprise. Compared to mallard duck, Muscovy duck is relatively lean. At Repast, the kitchen slices the rare meat and leaves just a thin layer of skin or fat, which is almost crispy. The meat, radiantly red, was served over two pale romaine leaves, under which there was a delicious red-wine risotto studded with "escargot confit." I confess I was completely put off when the waiter assured me that, yeah, the snails were cooked in fat. But Wayne reminded me that they are swimming in butter, anyway. The dish is rich, to say the least.

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Wayne ordered merluza, a white fish similar to cod, wrapped in paper-thin Serrano ham, served over white beans with a basil-spiked sauce. Merluza is not my fave fish, but Repast's treatment boosts its flavor considerably.

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Desserts were probably the weakest link in our meal. A little pot of chocolate pudding, cooked more than five hours, was way too rich for me to eat more than a few spoonfuls. It was served with a dollop of orange-flavored whipped cream and a couple of crispy, chewy five-spice cookies.

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A lemon profiterole, served with honey and almond ice cream, was more palatably light after our heavy meal. But as profiteroles go, I really prefer the classic chocolate variety.

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Service at the restaurant was good, although servers need much more education on the menu. If you're going to serve complex cuisine, you need to train the staff so they don't have to run back to the kitchen every time a question is asked. Servers also need to fully sample the menu themselves.



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