Marin brings the West Coast to the Midwest
The order of eating over a long summer holiday weekend usually goes something like this: burger, hot dog, brat, two brats, Polish sausage, cheeseburger, and, in an effort to take a red meat respite, a grilled chicken sandwich on a squishy white bun. You know, for your health. The only salads you eat are of the coleslaw, potato, and seven-layer variety. You never consume as many marshmallows in the entire year as you do over the course of these three sparkler-enhanced days, four if your employer is generous. When it's all over, you resolve to start eating like a human instead of a saber tooth tiger, and in the midst of all the heat and heaviness you find yourself craving leafy, fluttery, crisp things. Non-starchy things. Maybe even vegan things.
On the other hand, you're reluctant to come to terms with the fact that you are no longer on vacation. You need a cocktail, and you wouldn't mind a little production value with your vegetables. A place where you can find such things now exists in downtown Minneapolis, and there you can recuperate from all your patriotism with fresh, beautifully presented, Bay Area-inspired cuisine (the restaurant is named after the famously affluent Marin County); a plethora of aromatic gin and tonics; and either dark-wood-polished or sun-soaked surroundings.
I'll admit that when I first heard that the restaurant replacing the lovely D'Amico Kitchen at the Chambers Hotel would be serving "California cuisine," a flurry of dated dishes came to mind: BBQ chicken pizza, things involving sun-dried tomatoes, blackened proteins. But one of the main reasons this term was coined back in the '70s was to help define and categorize the incredible food that chef Alice Waters was making at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Her food is widely credited with starting the "local and organic" movement and emphasized that sourcing the highest-quality ingredients and preparing them with minimal manipulation would produce the best-tasting food. It's the same idea that executive chef Mike Rakun is employing in Marin's kitchen, where fish is seared, steamed, or slow-cooked rather than fried; grains are whole; and butter really only makes an appearance on the dessert menu.
Dinner offers a handful of raw dishes, like the trio of fresh oysters or silky salmon sashimi with shiso leaf and ponzu sauce, and some almost-raw items such as the delicate vegetable and soba noodle spring rolls. But Rakun, who is also the executive chef at sister restaurant Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park, has said that he's not trying to push diners too far out of their comfort zone. That's why the list of entrees, which are all under 600 calories, still includes things like the beautiful filet of beef from Grass Run Farms — rich and minerally — served with a bright (possibly bordering on overly acidic) salad of shaved asparagus, lump crab meat, and a mix of wild mushrooms, finished with a dollop of sweet onion marmalade. You'll be surprised at how much you don't miss the mashed potatoes. If you do need them to feel complete, get 'em in the lobster and fingerling potato hash that comes with the massive seared dayboat scallops. The dish is finished with a study in corn textures — a smear of creamed corn, roasted corn that pops with sweetness, and popcorn, which was much too hard and ended up working against the dish. Lest you start to think that calorie counts are kept low by skimping on the amount of food on the plate, portions were actually reasonable. They just tend to be equal amounts of vegetables and protein with little or no starch.
Marin's aim is to offer healthy options without relegating diners to the salad section (though they do have a number of those), but that doesn't mean the menu is devoid of indulgence. Whole grain flatbread pizzas are served straight from the wood-fired oven at lunch and dinner. The slow-roasted tomato with scant amounts of mozzarella had beautiful summer-sweet flavor and a cornmeal-dusted sturdy crust that still had a bit of softness to it. Loads of fresh herbs from the garden boxes on the patio, courtesy of Dragsmith Farms, one of the local purveyors that works with Marin, finish the pizzas and provide flavor and visual interest without adding any calories. If you're in the mood for something a little meatier, try the ham, fig, and blue cheese version, which features the same crust but a far more savory experience. On the non-animal end of the spectrum is the vegan banh mi sandwich, which was a bit confounding because of the slice of gelatinous vegetable terrine that made up part of the filling. Even if they use something like agar-agar (a vegan gelatin substitute) or it's just a natural result of juices solidifying when compressed and chilled, the texture is just...odd. Seward Co-Op's version, and almost any others I've had with mock duck, were more successful.
By now you've gathered that Marin is, largely, a starch and butter-free zone, so it's ironic that it's also home to one of the most decadent desserts I've had in recent memory. The Tanariva chocolate square boggles the mind in construction and richness: Caramelized milk chocolate is tucked inside mousse-like layers of chocolate cream, topped with hazelnut brittle, creme fraiche, and edible gold leaf. I can hardly imagine ordering anything else, but if you do, the warm brown butter and rhubarb tart is a good bet.
Ever wished that bars would return to making cocktails with fewer than six components? Then you'll appreciate that one of the cornerstones of the bar program here is the periodic table of gin and tonic, a novel idea and a hard-to-pass-up option on a sweltering day. Pick your top-shelf gin, whether it be Death's Door, Voyager, or Edinburgh, and your aromatic — lavender, lemon verbena, rosemary, and several others — many of which come right from those same patio garden boxes, to blend with house-made tonic. The results were strong and splendid, but a definite special order at $14 a pop. Inside, the cocktail menu focuses on fruitier champagne cocktails and the most killer truffled peach (a unique item from Southern Italy that's kind of like an olive but crisper and pit-free) martini, created by head mixologist Mike Rasmussen.
Overall Marin seems to have the same fingerprint as some of the other pre-theater fine dining options on this stretch of Hennepin, but its lines are a little smoother and its delivery a bit more direct. Customers, I think, will appreciate Marin's transparency when it comes to the fat, fiber, and calories listed right on the main menu (notably absent on the dessert menu), but because of that may expect it to be all healthy and earthy and organic-feeling, which it's not. In the end, it may prove to be an insignificant conflict of ideals, and anyway it's much harder to argue these things when your mouth is full of chocolate and gold leaf.
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