However you view Marrow, the sophisticated new restaurant on Sixth Avenue, there's one common theme: It strives to be approachable.
It's a restaurant with a chef who has created a menu of meaty ingredients unfamiliar to Tacoma - roasted bone marrow, goat, oxtail, ostrich and bison. And there's a dissonant undercurrent at Marrow: The meat-centric restaurant, named after its signature dish of bone marrow, unexpectedly also caters to vegetarians.
The 50-seat restaurant is stylish in a minimalist way - think Nordic austerity - with a spare aesthetic set against vibrant red walls and a soundtrack that pulses electronica. Butcher block tables, aluminum chairs, cork-and-mirror artwork and polished concrete floors feel clean and crisp, softened by playful chandeliers that are cluster clouds of naked light bulbs.
It seems perpetually full of Tacoma's gritty hipsters. It's the kind of restaurant that seems as if it should intimidate suburbanites, but it doesn't. (Just don't bring the kids - it's 21 and older only.) It's loud when at capacity and is vibrantly social by design. Tables are closely placed, with a communal table near the bar meant for sharing.
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Marrow opened in August, when Tacoma was seeing a restaurant renaissance with the opening of Social Bar & Grill, Zara Mediterranean and AmeRAWcan Bistro - all restaurants offering higher-end fare and new concepts to Tacoma.
Jaime Kay Jones, who has owned Top of Tacoma since 2007 with her husband, Jason, opened Marrow in partnership with Kyle Wnuk, a Tacoma native and Seattle Central Community College culinary arts graduate. Wnuk has cooked in a number of Tacoma kitchens, including Il Fiasco years ago (where Marrow is now), the Dash Point Lobster Shop and Dirty Oscar's Annex - the fun and young bar on Sixth.
What some might consider approachable about Marrow, others might find irritating: Reservations aren't accepted for parties fewer than six.
"I don't want people to think they want to go to dinner, but they can't come to us because they don't have any reservations, " Jones said.
The mantra of "approachable and casual" extends to the first moment a diner enters. The restaurant has no greeter for diners, who sometimes clog the front hallway because of the no-reservation rule.
Informality is a world Jones long has navigated at her McKinley Hill cocktail lounge, a successful bar with a reputation for serving well-crafted bar eats and interesting cocktails. Marrow is the first upscale venture for Jones.
Does the restaurant run with the efficiency of some of its Sixth Avenue competition, such as Asado or the long established Primo Grill? No, it doesn't. The learn-as-they-go vibe is sometimes on display. During one visit, a painful wait stretched beyond 30 minutes for a course. On two visits, staffers seemed distracted and burdened with juggling too many tables. The wine list of a dozen bottles is much too brief. Jones is cognizant of all of the above. "I've never done anything high-end before. I have a ton to learn, " she said.
It might not be perfect, but the concept is worth supporting because Marrow is elevating food to a sophisticated level Tacoma needs. During six visits spanning seven months, I found a menu full of seasonal offerings and ingredients that challenge, but presented in approachable ways: Bison, ostrich and duck served in the form of short ribs and sliders.
Marrow's yin-yang concept of separate meat-centric and vegetarian menus can seem disjointed. Perhaps it is, but I see great potential in any restaurant that caters to a woefully underserved community of vegetarian eaters, even if there is bone marrow at the next table. (Wnuk uses a separate kitchen line and fryer for the vegetarian fare.)
At the heart of the menu is seasonality - what you see today, you might not see in two months, which is why some of the menu items described in this review no longer are on the menu.
The restaurant's menu is sparsely explained and there's no separation between smaller appetizers and more substantial entrees. You'll find yourself relying on servers, who do a fine job of explaining the food.
From the smaller plates offerings, the restaurant's signature marrow ($15), served with braised oxtail, was an unctuous treat. Roasted with garlic, the marrow set in bone was like the most garlicky butter you can imagine, only with heft and jiggle.
Another small-plate displayed a perfectly fried duck egg which, when pierced, spilled golden yolky ribbons over a hearty serving of slow-braised goat ($12).
More substantial meat-focused entrees showed Wnuk's penchant for big flavors. The meaty bison short ribs ($27) were three bones deep, moist and clingy, paired with pungent, cheesy potatoes and halved Brussels sprouts swimming in a big and bold demi. Save for being overcooked, an occasional problem from the kitchen, the pork chops ($26) were a puckerfest with pickled raisins steeped in assertive vinegar, tamed by a companion of creamy Yukon potatoes studded with black mustard seeds. Duck medallions ($23) were elegant in a thin but memorable pomegranate gravy.
A burger ($13) that left the menu in winter (but will return soon) was char-flamed and redolent with beefy flavor on a sturdy brioche and paired with thinly sliced fried russets.
Another burger slider duo ($16) on the most current menu offered tiny tastes of ground ostrich and duck on glossy buns. A rib eye steak on a visit earlier this year ($29) was marbled perfection.
The menu offers the occasional taste from the sea, and I dug heartily into creamy risotto ($19) studded surprisingly with beans, topped with snappy prawns and a barely seared sea scallop.
The vegetarian menu has remained a wash of grains and beans, no gimicky tofu or meat substitutes.
Seasonality was on display last summer with squash blossoms ($8) stuffed with Oregonzola cheese and a watermelon arugula salad ($8) with a cherry balsamic vinaigrette.
Farro and quinoa anchor the vegetarian menu - and Wnuk handles them brilliantly.
A farroto ($13) emulated the texture of risotto, only nuttier and chewier, and came laden with mushrooms.
On another visit, a kitschy play on breakfast hash showcased farro ($15) again, richly topped with a duck egg and a faux demi. Quinoa formed the base for cakes ($8) and as a vegetarian burger ($12). The quinoa worked best as cakes when paired with wilted spinach and pea vines.
And who knew lentils could be so magical? Wnuk infused them with Thai curry and cardamom ($15) on one visit and dosed them with mint ($14) on another.
Dessert was the only pure miss of six visits - undergrilled pears were unwieldy and tasted green. We returned them to the kitchen.
What's next for Marrow? A new menu is coming soon. Also, watch for more local ingredients.
Although the restaurant touted a buy-local mantra upon opening, it's an idea Wnuk and Jones pushed away as they realized how much staff time it would require to track down farmers and food purveyors.
"It's something we're still working on, " Jones said.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at: 253-597-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MarrowWhere: 2717 Sixth Ave., TacomaContact: 253-267-5299, marrow tacoma.comHours: 4 p.m.- 2 a.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, closed Sundays and MondaysWine list: Small and changes often, but a recent list featured about 14 bottles for $23-$68 and evenly split between European and California wines with three Washington vintages. The list is heavy on reds. A by-the-glass selection is priced at $7-$8.Cocktails and beer: Premium spirits and craft beers. The cocktail menu approaches the intricacy and sophistication of 1022 South, but without the hand-crafted syrups and bitters.Non-alcoholic beverages: An impressive array, including San Pelligrino, Dry Soda (premium soda) and ginger sodaKids: Not allowed. The restaurant is licensed for 21 and older only.Noise level: Medium loud when half occupied, very loud when fully occupied. A lot of hard surfaces bounce the sound.Reservations: Only accepted for parties larger than sixPricing: Appetizers $6-$12, entrees $14-$29