A single-minded pursuit of flavor
Scott Herritt, chef-owner of the subterranean Grotto, is cooking on a new level. Several, really: He emerged from the depths late this summer to open a new place, Marliave, a restored 1885 restaurant that features upstairs and downstairs dining areas, plus a little oyster bar.
The levels have distinct menus and missions. The casual downstairs takes fun food seriously -- the likes of sliders, rarebit, and burgers are prepared with real attention, which, with this kind of simple and satisfying food, translates to love.
The more formal upstairs takes serious food seriously, albeit with whimsical touches. The dishes are ornately plotted and presented, with multiple parts and multiple courses. Their translation is a more complicated assignment.
Starters often feature one ingredient prepared several ways, or riff on a single preparation using multiple ingredients. Eggs are served scrambled, poached, and deviled, with farm-raised caviar. Tartare is a threesome of beef, tuna, and hamachi. Even a salad described as "heirloom tomatoes, organic greens, fresh herbs" -- in theory the essence of fresh simplicity -- is elaborate. There's a lovely pile of pea tendrils, greens, and flowers, beside a stack of alternating tomato and mozzarella slices, beside a little bowl of tomato soup. It's very nice, though it looks more like an artifact than a salad.
The other salad on the menu, the ubiquitous beet, is even more done up. (This stands in contrast to the decor, which aside from some potted orchids is dark and austere, preserving the old, slanted nature of the space.) The dish is pink and red and scattered with flowers, with more stacking, this time of beets and goat cheese. It resembles something the Mad Hatter might serve Alice on Valentine's Day, and how you feel about that may depend on who you are. Served to a gentleman of the cognac-drinking variety, it's enough to make his nose wrinkle. He won't touch the dolly-size teacup of bright pink beet soup -- he prefers his wee drams amber -- but it's worth manning up for. It's totally delicious, balanced with a nip of vinegar, and spiked with bits of cheese and nuts. The presentation might be precious, but the dish certainly transcends the usual roasted beets, goat cheese, and greens.
Main courses again are variations on a theme, be it rabbit, lobster, or pumpkin. They come in shifts. So the dish titled simply "Scallops" is a plate of Nantucket Bay coquilles St. Jacques with Mornay sauce, followed by a second plate of divers with artichokes and uni butter. There is nothing wrong with either plate; the shellfish is perfectly cooked, and the uni butter proves a perfect, subtle foil. The slight whiff of the darker-natured sea urchin deliciously corrupts the cheerful, sweet scallop. But together, it's a plate of little scallops in butter followed by a plate of big scallops in butter. It feels redundant.
A pork dish, with meat from St-Canut Farms north of Montreal, features a large cast-iron casserole of cassoulet. It's really tasty, a stew of beans, bacon, pork sausage, and braised shoulder. Cassoulet isn't really an intro to a meal, however, it's the whole story. When the follow-up loin wrapped in bacon arrives, you'll have to gird yours. You're glad to see it, but you've got nowhere left to put it.
The double-plate-whammy makes you wonder whether you should have had a starter, as your main course is more like two main courses, but then, it's two main courses of the same thing and your starter provided variety. So does dessert, which comes in Chocolate (truffles, cake, pudding), Vanilla (very good: creme brulee, cupcake, cookie), and Ice Cream (which changes but might be something like lavender, ginger, and mint). There's a glass dome with cheese off to the side, but cheese doesn't appear on the menu and was never offered. It's good that portions are substantial, as prices are too: $17 for starters and $39 for main courses, plus surcharges on several dishes.
The egg starter, for example, comes with a $15 supplement, presumably for the caviar. Even with a smattering of luxury, $32 seems excessive for a couple of eggs, particularly if the preparation is off. The poached egg on one visit is so overdone it's essentially hard-boiled; these yolks don't run. The scrambled are spooned back inside an eggshell and served in an egg cup. It's a nice presentation, but it's simply scrambled eggs. The deviled egg is quite good, and just the sort of retro comfort food the Marliave knocks out of the park downstairs.
It's hard not to feel frustrated eating here. (It doesn't help that food can take forever to arrive, though the servers handle the situation professionally, providing a complimentary round of drinks.) There is much that is good. The idea of choosing a single ingredient and cooking elaborately around it is appealing. Real thought has clearly been put into the menu. "It's a study in food," our waiter tells us proudly on one visit. Sometimes it works. A main course of Wolfe's Neck Farm beef features short rib with potato puree in flavorful jus, followed by grilled tenderloin with light, flaky onion rings; the beef is wonderful in each preparation, though there's really no reason they couldn't appear on one plate together. The lobster dish starts off with rich bisque containing pieces of lobster meat and an unnecessary foam, then lobster tail and claw perched atop a hillock of buttered spinach, beside a ramekin of gooey macaroni and cheese topped with puff pastry for even more richness. (Why the $6 supplement when lobster is so inexpensive right now?) There's a nice selection of wines, and good house cocktails.
But for each successful dish there's a promising one that doesn't come together. The duck starter one night features meatballs that are undercooked in the middle, paired with hard, underdone foie gras ravioli. The pumpkin main course begins with a pumpkin carved out and filled with uninteresting pumpkin bisque; black truffles in the soup add little. The second plate is pumpkin ravioli with more black truffles. Again, the ravioli are hard; the filling tastes oddly like Butterfingers.
It's nearly impossible to envision each dish before it arrives, as the components aren't listed in order on the menu; the pork, for instance, is described as "sausage, braised shoulder, confit leg, bacon wrapped loin, cassoulet, cabbage," the pumpkin as "soup, ravioli, roasted 'bowl,' black truffle." This menu-composition choice seems deliberately confounding. With a little streamlining -- a more direct menu, perhaps fewer plates per serving, and slightly reduced price tags -- Marliave's upstairs could achieve the consistency and clarity of its downstairs. Then it will feel more like a labor of love, and less like an intellectual exercise.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.