Lisa Owen, owner of The Mark restaurant in downtown Olympia. (Steve Bloom/The Olympian)
By Craig Sailor
The News Tribune
The scene: Four dining rooms create intimate spaces in this richly appointed restaurant in downtown Olympia. The front room, combined with the bar, is paneled with dark grained wood, giving it a swanky old club feel. Black leather booths contrast with leopard print chairs. Framed work by talented Olympia paper artist Nikki McClure hangs on the walls. A spacious, plant-filled outdoor dining area at the rear of the establishment makes for a convivial dining experience on nice days.
People in the kitchen: Owner Lisa Owen is the driving force behind the 8-year-old restaurant. Owen says she strives for a balance between health and decadence in the design of her menu, which has a decidedly Italian streak. That influence comes from the formative year Owen lived in Italy and her subsequent stateside stints in several Italian restaurants.
A consultation with
Seattle chef Tom Douglas persuaded Owen to install a wood-fired grill. "It keeps (the food) lean and clean and gives it a lovely flavor. I can't imagine cooking meat otherwise," she says.
The food: Owen's philosophy is based on simple, high-quality, locally produced ingredients – and organic when possible. "I want to know where and how the food was produced," she says.
Owen is unapologetic about her approach. "A lot of food is made for the ego of the chef and not the health and enjoyment of the client. If you combine a lot of ingredients, what are you tasting?" she says.
What that means for the diner is a meticulous preparation that is lush without being opulent. But while the pared-down simplicity of Owen's cuisine is its main attraction, it occasionally is its own downfall: A few dishes arrived so minimally presented they seemed almost an afterthought.
Dishes sampled: At the front of the menu is a full page of cheeses, olives and Salumi salami. We skipped those for a smoked salmon filet ($13) served with extra virgin olive oil-covered bread. It was easily one of the nicest salmon filets I've ever had. Not too salty or smoky, it was a generous hunk of near-perfect fish. The oil-soaked bread, prepared on Owen's grill, made for a nice complement to the fish.
A house salad ($4.75/6.75) was composed of mixed baby greens (from Tumwater's Kirsop Farm), a light balsamic vinaigrette and shavings of fresh reggiano cheese. It seemed plain and left us unsatisfied.
For an entrée, we tried the flat-iron steak ($25). Maybe it was the steak's free range/hormone-free status or the wood-fired grill, but it was as tender and flavorful as any tenderloin I've tried. Owen came to the table to inform us that her garlic-rosemary potato accompaniment was still cooking, and ask if I would like another option. I chose roma tomatoes. Ruby-red slices were covered with fresh sliced basil and they paired so well with the steak I couldn't imagine anything else as a side.
The butternut ravioli ($13.75) was an interesting take on pasta: no Italian influences here. The squash-filled pillows came with two generous slices of melting butter and were lightly sprinkled with raw sugar. It was a rich presentation that made for two subsequent meals at home.
The fettuccine with grilled chicken ($16) was a terrific marriage of flavors. Neither the red onion nor the fresh thyme overpowered the dish. Flavors separated from each other but also worked together
Other entrée options include: rigatoni with panchetta, rotini with butter and cheese, fettuccini with prosciutto or portabellos, tagliatelle with scallops, marinated tofu with squash, and a whole chicken stuffed with lemon and garlic.
Dessert: We tried both the flourless chocolate torte ($4.75) and the marscarpone walnut tarte ($4.75). Both are housemade and didn't overwhelm the palate with sweetness. The walnut tarte was served frozen in a sweet and salty walnut crust. The serving temperature dulled the rich mouth-feel of the dessert. We let it warm up before finishing it.
Drinks: The Mark has an extensive specialty cocktail and wine list. Some of the cocktail selections are amusingly cheeky: "The Local" ($6.75) is an Olympia beer, a Maker's Mark and an American Spirit cigarette for "your outdoor smoking pleasure."
The "Touch of Evil" ($8.50) is a Margarita of Souza Hornitos, Cointreau, lime and a stick of sugar cane. The cane was a nice counterpoint to the otherwise dry cocktail. "China Town" ($7) was the sweetest concoction we tried but it wasn't at all cloying: Absolut Pear combined with pear juice and soda water had a wonderfully refreshing quality.
It's impressive that The Mark bucks the $10-$12 cocktail trend. For that matter, the price structure for the entire menu is economical for the quality of food presented. Never once did we feel we were getting anything but the highest quality of ingredients.
Service: Both Owen and her bartender-server made frequent visits to our table to explain the menu in detail. Service was prompt and attentive.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
Where: 407 Columbia St. S.W., Olympia
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; dinner is served 5-10 p.m.
Details: Major credit cards accepted, wheelchair accessible
Entree price range: $6.50-$25
Contact: 360-754-4414 or www.themarkolympia.com</div>