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Restaurant Tours: can this address be saved?



It's a little scary when a terrific new place opens up in what's consistently been a restaurant burial ground. In the case of the Marc, one can only hope that it will break the jinx on its address. It certainly deserves to.

Its River North location, on Superior east of Orleans, would seem to be a natural, but at least a half-dozen restaurants have failed in this remodeled first-floor loft space in as many years. Some served acceptable fare, such as the Superior Street Cafe, and others were well worth visiting, such as J.P.'s Crab House, run by the usually successful Jorge Perez.

On the other hand, lots more restaurants and clubs within a block or two have died as well. Only Hat Dance has survived.

The Marc is owned and operated by a former executive chef at Gordon, that aging but still impish bastion of modern cuisine. Dozens and dozens of excellent chefs have done time in its kitchen through the years, and sterling personalities such as Daniel Castro, John Terczak, Ron Blazek, and Stewart Parsons have gone on to open their own places, with Blazek's Relish as the standout among them.

Andrew Marc Rothschild toiled in Gordon's kitchen during late 1991 and part of last year, after stints at New York's esteemed River Cafe, London's even more celebrated La Gavroche, and several spots in Strasbourg, France.

The style of his kitchen is what we generally classify as new American cooking, which uses sometimes exotic ingredients in complex dishes that may seem contrived but deliver potent flavors. He makes judicious use of herb- and spice-infused oils, and he also works hard at creating a handsome plate, frequently adding the third dimension of height to the presentation.

One of the simpler pleasures among the starters is his home-cured salmon ($6), which looks for all the world like any other slice of good gravlax, but yields the subtly off-center flavor of the aromatic tea leaves used in the curing process--in place of the usual dill. The plate is garnished with dabs of salmon caviar, a light anointment of ginger oil, and a few crisps of pumpernickel toast. Height is added with a lattice of extra-crisp potato shards supported by smidgens of salmon mousse. Overly elaborate? Maybe, but the flavors shine through it all.

A simpler, traditional French dish, confit of duck leg on a bed of warm lentil salad ($7) is well executed--the confit, prepared by simmering the meat in its own fat, emerges not the least greasy. The lentils provide the right gustatory balance for such a rich dish.

Then comes the multilayered parfait of lump crab meat ($8), a really elaborate starter that looks like an inverted muffin with a light frosting. When you cut through it you find elegant little layers of crab, avocado slices, and salmon caviar frosted with creme fraiche, the thick, rich, lightly tart cream used in so many French dishes. The tastes all blend into one lush, sensual delight that exceeds the sum of its parts.

For the vegetarians among us there is a saute of chunked wild mushrooms ($6). Porcini, portobellos, whatever happens to be around, done in a light, translucent sauce that doesn't compete with the mushroom flavors--all garnished by an upright slice of crisp phyllo pastry sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. The phyllo adds just the right crunch for contrast.

The entrees are equally interesting, notably a fine trout fillet, done just to the point of opacity, cloaked with a lightly crisped crust of potato slices ($17). This was bedded down on a layer of fresh, crinkly morel mushrooms, one of the most elegant varieties, with a musky sharpness coming from an accompaniment of sauteed mustard greens and a bit of sweetness from an onion confit. This is typical of the matching of textures and mixing of sweet and hot flavors that Rothschild comes up with. Lots of chefs try it, few make it work so well.

Take another elaborate concoction: a "napoleon" of striped bass moistened with a very light warm champagne vinaigrette ($18). The fish fillet is layered with strips of eggplant and roasted sweet pepper, giving it a decidedly Provencal air. Once again there was a succulent wild mushroom at the base--this time a meaty portobello.

A Provencal touch was also added to the roast rack of lamb ($22). Here the tiny chops, done to a rosy rare as ordered, came in a crust of black sesame seeds and accompanied by tiers of eggplant, tomato, and potato--close to but not quite the classic French country tian. A very light sprinkling of natural juices was enlivened by a dab of mustard, which beautifully accented the lamb.

Most of the meat eaters I know would have been satisfied by the vegetarian special ($17). It changes regularly according to what's in season. The day we tried it there was a melange of fresh succotash, some asparagus, zesty sauteed red onions, roasted red peppers, heady sauteed spinach, and creamy pureed potatoes, served with a haystack of egg noodles.

Unlike a lot of places serving this kind of nouvelle-derived food, the portions here are generous so you may not need dessert. But if you opt for a sweet closing you'll find some gems--like a trio of creme brulees served in little eggcups ($6). The flavors are vanilla, chocolate, and coffee, each more satiny than the last. Also an unusual, tasty flourless apple cake, drizzled with warm butterscotch sauce ($6).

There is a wide selection of reasonably priced wines, with many bottles coming in under $20 and an unusually large choice by the glass, especially among the whites. The waiters here are particularly helpful in matching one to your dinner course.

The Marc's large space in SuHu has the typical look of your basic upgraded loft: bare brick walls, touches of good-looking woodwork and paneling, a floating bar area, and high, high ceilings. The ceilings are much too high to give the sense of intimacy a place like this needs, and they are no help when it comes to acoustics. Still, this is clearly the best of the restaurants that have tried to make a go of this location, and probably the best new restaurant of the year so far.

The Marc, 311 W. Superior, is open Monday to Saturday for lunch from 11:30 to 3 and for dinner from 5 to 12:30. Saturday dinner hours are 5 to 1:30. There is live jazz after 10 Friday and Saturday. Call 642-3810.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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