Venue Review: Marche
When Marche opened in downtown Menlo Park in 2001, it proudly proclaimed its French influences through its name, which translates as market. Executive Chef Howard Bulka, who apprenticed with Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel years earlier, focused his menu on top quality, seasonal ingredients prepared with a Gallic sensibility.
Today Marche feels more like an elegant steakhouse with international leanings than the modern French restaurant of its beginnings. Although Bulka still employs French techniques in the kitchen, the starring role on the daily-changing menu now goes to All-American beef with a supporting cast of ethnic-inflected dishes ranging from empanadas to Greek lamb chops.
The evolution of the restaurant reflects the changing tastes of Marche's well-heeled clientele, who are more likely to opt for a good steak than haute cuisine these days. ''We get a lot of business people in here who really want salad and steak and ice cream for dessert,'' says Bulka, noting that some nights 70 percent of the orders are for red meat.
The 60-seat main dining room has had the clubby feel of an exclusive steakhouse since it opened. Plantation shutters at the windows, beamed ceilings and a chocolate and beige color scheme give the space a tailored, masculine feel. A trio of dramatic light fixtures in the shape of immense lampshades cast a flattering warm light on the room. Comfortable leather chairs pull up to tables draped in thick white linen and dressed with a single rose.
In this luxe setting, where entree prices can top $40, servers seem almost out of place in royal blue button-down shirts, open at the neck, and black aprons. They're chatty and informal, but they pay attention to the details, changing flatware with every course and folding napkins when diners leave the table.
The menu is small and eclectic: four starters, four salads and half a dozen main courses most nights, depending on what's good in the market and what captures Bulka's imagination. The wine list offers an impressive selection, including some terrific wines by the glass, such as smoky, austere 1997 Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes-Hermitage syrah ($16) and 2004 Chateau le Pape Passac-Leognan ($14), a nice, round Bordeaux with a seductive nose.
One night the giant Ecuadorian prawn ($16), as meaty as lobster, is simply seared and served with shoestring potatoes, a roasted gypsy pepper, and aioli. On another, the prawn is stuffed with Dungeness crab and wrapped in pancetta. Juicy grilled lamb chops ($37), seasoned with garlic and oregano, are accompanied by a deconstructed moussaka studded with pine nuts one evening. The next, the moussaka will be carefully layered and baked in individual ramekins.
Ingredients are impeccable and the cooking is proficient. Still, I could wish for more culinary innovation at a restaurant with such an accomplished chef and top-tier prices. It's hard to get excited by an empanada ($14) -- even when the corn masa pastry is thin and perfectly crisp -- in a region blessed with so many good, inexpensive ethnic restaurants. And sashimi salad ($17) doesn't qualify as exotic fare anymore, despite the excellence of the buttery Tasmanian salmon, ahi tuna and Hawaiian butterfish.
I want to be surprised and delighted. Both evenings I dined at Marche began on a promising note with an exquisite watermelon gazpacho as the amuse bouche, a gift from the chef. The demitasse cup of chilled soup, the sweet essence of watermelon spiked with chile, was empty far too soon. Not until the dessert course did the kitchen exhibit such flavorful creativity again.
In between, there was very good eating, to be sure.
Three fat, perfectly seared Massachusetts diver scallops ($15) and button shiitake mushrooms swam in a brilliantly orange sauce of reduced carrot juice, perfumed by white truffle oil. Fresh, sweet corn kernels and small Florida white shrimp added textural interest to a creamy corn soup ($11) based on a stock made from the cobs, thickened by pureed kernels. The cornbread, served in the soup bowl, seemed extraneous, however.
Among the non-meat entrees on the menu, the filet of Tai snapper ($32) from New Zealand was moist and flaky, yet substantial enough to stand up to the bold Italian-style tomato vinaigrette with capers and olives. Guinea hen ($28) and Artic char ($33) were also available one evening.
Steak gets the star treatment with extraordinary sauces to set off the flavorful, expertly grilled meat. For the tender filet, Bulka resurrected the glamorous steak Diane ($38) of New York's famed Colony Restaurant, with its brandy and Worcestershire spiked sauce, at the suggestion of customers. A 14-ounce serving of exceptional dry-aged rib-eye ($41) is dressed with a traditional red wine sauce and hot, crunchy, well-salted fries.
Nothing, however, prepared us for the amazing desserts (all $10), each a tour de force of flavor and texture. Bulka's training as a pastry chef showed in the restaurant's interpretation of the classic La Concorde, a fantasy of fragile chocolate meringue rods and dense, almost fudgy chocolate mousse that took my breath away. Buttery corn ice cream, with a few whole kernels, took on a playful air with crunchy house-made caramel corn and bright strawberry granita.
Newly arrived pastry chef Michael Finehirsh -- who trained with celebrated French chefs Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud and last worked at Trevese in Los Gatos -- brings a contemporary touch to the menu. His intensely flavored caramel pudding with vanilla poached bananas and rosemary emulsion is a whole new spin on comfort food. But the Lemon Cloud was stunning, starting with the namesake lemon souffle on a thin chocolate cookie crust. It's teamed with coconut panna cotta topped by white chocolate and coconut foam and an intriguing citrus soda made with lemongrass, mint and vanilla.
Desserts like these make a memorable ending to a fine, if costly, meal at Marche.