We were greeted before we’d set a toe inside the door. “Welcome to Restaurant Marron!” the greeter burbled out on the sidewalk. “Have you dined with us before?” Zarina Sakai, who along with her husband Eric Sakai acquired this legendary restaurant space earlier this year, is a host of uncommon enthusiasm.
Her eagerness is earnest, and it is dear, and it stands in markedly youthful contrast to the room, which is ancient by Seattle standards. Murals unspool a life-size Pushkin fairy tale across its four sepia-toned walls, a legacy of the 1930 Loveless Building’s early occupant, the Russian Samovar. Since then the room has held a string of other restaurants, including the short-lived dessert lounge Coco La Ti Da and the recently departed Olivar. Windows remain leaded and stained glass. The heavy wooden door is something one might better call a portal.
Into this magical chamber materialized the Sakais, who came up from San Francisco to realize their dream of owning a restaurant in a like-mindedly culinary city. Eric, a Hawaii native and culinary school grad (CIA Hyde Park), came from the Four Seasons chain and cooked at San Francisco’s Rubicon and Acquerello; Zarina had worked front-of-house positions at Napa Valley’s French Laundry. Their vision for Marron was a come-as-you-are spot with elevated cuisine—the time-honored French techniques, Northwest ingredients, Asian leanings trifecta. This Eric would extemporize into dinners of two ($42), three ($49), five ($80), or eight to 15 courses, prices varying upward.
Ambitious? With half the menu changing daily—astoundingly. Successful? Depends on how you define success.
From the first sip of our first amuse-bouche—a slender shot glass of smoky tomato puree, silken and vivid—it was manifestly clear that Sakai knows a thing or two about execution. Fish is cooked with the right restraint, as in a plate of wild striped bass, cloaked in tandoori spices and served with heirloom tomatoes and pickled spring onions in a sprightly emulsion of cilantro and gypsy peppers. A dish of Wagyu beef culottes, grilled to the perfect red and fanned across a light dashi, butter, black garlic emulsion, were lush and lovely alongside lightly steamed Nantes carrots, green beans, and bits of the briny kelp kombu.
Both of these preparations hewed to well-trod flavor paths, Indian and Japanese respectively, so it was refreshing when innovation accompanied the culinary chops on an appetizer of heirloom eggplants. Sakai sought to showcase the distinct flavors and textures of distinct eggplant varieties, so he cubed one and pureed another, adding baby leeks, charred cabbage leaves, and pumpkin seeds to the production, then united it all in a foie gras vinaigrette. The result was an original conspiracy of butter and smoke, casting an elevating spotlight on the delectable eggplant. Really exquisite.
This was chef Sakai at his finest, suggesting a culinary innovator worth the price tags. His palate is plainly smart: Bread comes from the peerless Columbia City Bakery in a generous assortment, French-press coffee from Oakland artisan roaster Blue Bottle. (What seems like the ultimate coals-to-Newcastle move, serving Bay Area coffee in Seattle, is actually pretty canny given Blue Bottle’s uncommonly round richness; its caramelly finish was like nothing I have tasted in this town, and stunning with the fruity dessert cakes.)
But as dinners in this fairy tale room unfold, diners will begin to locate the limits of Sakai’s achievement. Conceptually, his reach too often exceeds his grasp. Beautiful, buttery shingles of line-caught tuna arrived dominoed over greens with dots of black garlic–truffle–white shoyu sauce—which overshadowed the sumptuous fish completely, even inelegantly. A pork shoulder braised a whopping 30 hours in milk—another point for the chef’s cooking chops; we could’ve eaten this tender meat with a spoon—came swimming in a sauce of vanilla and Meyer lemon, sharing the plate with lovely charred onion and cabbage and pureed broccoli. Vanilla and pork can be ethereal together, but this vanilla was unmitigated and incoherent with the brassicas.
And on and on, across dishes which failed to rise above the sum of their well-executed parts: a chicken breast and chicken sausage plate with a disparate cast of supporting players (white bean puree, grilled radicchio, superfluous Castelvetrano olives), a late-summer salad of sweet grilled peaches and sweet heirloom tomatoes with too little balance from feta or vinegar or mint to carry the glorious fruit into a deeper, more interesting complexity.
I was thinking about the disappointment of this on my second visit, having just bailed on an amuse-bouche whose rich avocado sorbet did not play well with its tomatillo base—when up trotted a fretful Zarina. “Oh! Did you not enjoy your sorbet?” she asked, brow knit, personally pained. A server’s investment in her guests’ experience is laudable, for sure—but by the end of two meals, Marron’s excessively avid staff and their obsequiousness had become exhausting. You don’t have to try so hard.
Marron’s dining room and kitchen are both pretty green, and it shows up in extra bold relief against an enterprise this ambitious. A daily changing menu is a particular hurdle for a chef this challenged by conception. The kitchen is small too; the reason Sakai developed his signature tic of grilling greens (they were on nearly all the dishes we tried), which conserves pan use.
The good news is that the Sakais will almost certainly grow into greater mastery; both have a firm grasp on the basics and need, simply, more experience. The rougher news is they’ve chosen one heck of a neighborhood as a practice ground. With Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy just across Broadway and Nathan Lockwood of Altura right around the corner, this little patch of North Capitol Hill has become the epicenter of extraordinary dining in Seattle, period.
Can Marron play in those leagues? Alas, not yet.