241 S. Main St., Stillwater
Get ready for the new critical darling and underdog champion of 2002: Marx Wine Bar & Grill, a jewel-bright cheapie of a can-do bistro featuring a wine list that does its strongest work in the $16 to $24 range.
Bad news for you, though: It's all the way out in Stillwater.
But even if you never get to Marx, it's worth thinking about all the things the place does right. It's just about a textbook example of how talent and a series of heart-in-the-right-place decisions can give you everything you ever wanted--if you are an average Joe in an average neighborhood with the regular number of friends, relatives, and attached birthdays, even if you are an average Joe running a restaurant.
The food, for one thing, is a model of achievement, and pretty darn cheap: Appetizers run in the $3 to $5 range and include lots of little well-seasoned, amply thought-through dishes. The mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad ($4.75) holds chubby little slices of mozzarella that chef and owner Mark Hansen makes fresh every afternoon--against the objections, he says, of his kitchen staff, who wish he'd do it only a few times a week, since it takes so much time.
"If you're eating it here, I want it to be only a few hours old, because it's one of those items where you really should be able to tell the difference between doing it right and not," Hansen said when I talked to him on the phone for this story. That's the kind of thinking-the-best-of-your-audience that I wish every restaurateur would do. Put that sweet mozzarella on the table with a more aggressive dish like the skewers of minced lamb with mint and lots of garlic and every cell in your body becomes alert to the idea that food is coming, and it's different and good. That's an appetizer!
Salads are big enough for two as a starter. I liked the "country salad a la basca" ($5.95), romaine with tomatoes, sweet red onion, firm cubes of boiled potatoes, and salty interludes of pitted kalamata olives. Hearty and various, it was a salad for every day. Pizzas ($8-$10) were a little doughy when I tried them, but I liked the olive-oil-glazed crust and good-quality toppings, like the olive oil and garlic option, covered with prosciutto and topped with fresh, lemony arugula.
If I know Minnesotans, enormous entrées like the pastas are why Marx will become legendary: The homemade pappardelle (long, ribbon-like noodles) are served in a portion that would feed an army: $12.95 nets you a brimming platter of tender noodles covered with a modified Alfredo sauce of cream, great-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, nutmeg, and pistachios. Way too rich for my blood, but I'm guessing anyone who likes Cafe Latté is going to go nuts for this stuff. My favorite pasta was the Cannelloni Giovanni ($13.95): thin, meltingly tender sheets of pasta rolled around a filling that tastes like the essence of a Chicago beef sandwich, chuck steak reduced all day with garlic and pepperoncini until it's thick and succulent. The meat is then combined with sautéed bell peppers, bundled into tubes, and topped with fresh mozzarella and the kitchen's distinctly lovely marinara sauce. Dangerous.
Chef Hansen has quite a way with marinara. His version is bright and clean-tasting--so light and forthright it's hard not to ask for a bowl of it with a spoon. He says it's so good because he slices the garlic as thinly as though he were cutting it with a razor blade, and sautés these thin wafers of garlic in olive oil before adding them to the sauce, creating a sweet and flowery taste. He learned to do this in the years right after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, first cooking for an Italian restaurant in the Caribbean, and then for the seven years he ran his own place in New York's Westchester County.
That Caribbean and Italian-American experience comes together in dishes such as an Angus beef sirloin in a dusky and nicely pointed smoked-paprika sauce, the meat piled atop a fiery hash of chile-laced potato and collard greens. The way these salty, spicy, toasty, and meaty aspects are given a counterpoint by the bright, green, brassy notes from the vegetables is remarkably satisfying. I'm calling this steak and hash ($14.95) one for the memory book; it joins the Modern Café's pot roast in the comfort-food hall of fame.
Meanwhile, Marx's wine list makes its name in the fertile fields of bargains. Sparkling, light, nicely acidic Cal Valtorez Prosecco di Valdobbiadene is priced at $20 a bottle (I've seen it retail for $16), and the fizzy Italian wine goes so well with fish, salads, and hot weather, it's a great summertime choice. The Spanish red Conde de Valdemar Rioja Crianza has a nice herbal, earthy, robust character, and at $22 a bottle, it was an especial delight. About a dozen wines are offered by the glass, priced around $5.
And while I can't say the place is really a wine bar, as there's nothing rare or thrilling enough to make you drive there, it's a model wine list as far as showcasing wine as an everyday beverage. It's all very food-friendly and meant to be consumed with a meal, which is exactly what people are doing. One night I started counting the number of tables with glasses or bottles of wine on them, and it was nearly every one. Hansen says he is going through about four cases every week of Chilean Casa Lapostolle cabernet sauvignon ($19 a bottle, $5.50 a glass). In a town where, I'm guessing, the average household is about 60 times as likely to have a snow-plow attachment for its truck as a reference book on South American wines, I'm impressed.
Nice job, too, on getting the good people of Stillwater to line up out the door every night--at least that's been the situation every time I've been there.
Things weren't always so happy for chef and owner Mark Hansen, who spent the past seven years drowning in a restaurant that no one loved at all, a few blocks away from Marx, up in the Stillwater hills. It was named, forgettably, the Harvest Inn, and you have had since 1995 to go there. I remember it mostly as a great place for very expensive Caribbean food and some very expensive wines. Hansen finally sold the place this past January, which allowed him to open Marx three months ago. He says everything he's doing in Marx now comes from those quiet years at the Harvest, where he had many, many long nights to think, thanks to an empty dining room. Essentially, says Hansen, Marx is exactly the opposite of the Harvest: cheap instead of expensive, main street instead of side street, and colorful and casual instead of formal and elegant. He named his place Marx because he didn't want to be tied to one cuisine (say, solely Italian) and wanted it to reflect his name: i.e., Mark's Marx, just as Northeast's Jax was once owned by a guy named Jack. (Was wax once owned by a guy named Wack? Please advise.)
Yet, even with all that brainstorming, Hansen didn't foresee the effect that his restaurant's name would have on Stillwater's more witch-hunt-oriented residents: "I've had people calling me up and accusing me of having a communist restaurant, because they figure it has something to do with Karl Marx," he says. "And then, because of the oversize X on the sign outside, a lot of people are convinced there's something pornographic going on in here, so they yell, too."
Oh well. I say critical darling, you say pinko porn nest. And just when I thought somebody had finally figured out how to make all the people happy, all the time.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.