Can the Merchandise Mart become a dining destination? | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Can the Merchandise Mart become a dining destination?

DMK Restaurants tries to make the case with Marshall’s Landing.

by

comment

No one goes to the Merchandise Mart for fun. This is not to say no one has ever had any fun there, but all that fun is in the service of business, and no one wants to stay at their place of business any longer than they have to. Which presents something of a conundrum for the proprietors of Marshall's Landing, a new all-day restaurant from DMK Restaurants on the second floor of the Mart. Eating out is fun. Since no one goes to the Mart purely for fun and most people want to escape work as soon as the day is over, who, exactly, is Marshall's Landing for?

I've spent a lot of time in the Mart since it's connected to 350 N. Orleans, aka Reader World Headquarters, and I have to pass through every time I take the el to the office. Most of the dining options are worker food, salads and sandwiches that can easily be transported back to one's desk and consumed neatly in front of a computer.

A couple of years ago, the Mart decided it needed to get trendy, so it installed one of those big bleacherlike staircases that seem to be appearing in newly remodeled lobbies across the city. Workers or conventioneers on breaks can sit and drink coffee and watch important sporting events or HGTV programs projected onto the wall. There was also an open space with couches and armchairs arranged in little conversational nooks and a laptop bar that, at lunchtime, became the site of various guest pop-ups that were greatly appreciated by workers, particularly the barbecue and Caribbean offerings.

And then one day construction walls went up with signs on them promising something wonderful, and when they came down a few months later, we got Marshall's Landing. Soon after, I learned from reading Eater that all-day dining is officially a trend, just like the staircase. (And, yes, there is avocado toast on the menu.)

Superficially, Marshall's Landing doesn't look much different from the space that preceded it, except the furniture is fancier, like a Design Within Reach showroom. The potted plants, a coworker has informed me, are top-notch; her parents produce decorative plants for a living, so she should know. A few circular banquettes have been installed by the windows overlooking the river, which means that if you sit in one, you have to look out at the room, which is a shame. Interestingly, there are patches of grass on the ceiling. If conversation ever flags, you could fill some time by pondering what artistic statement the decorator was trying to make.

My first visit to Marshall's Landing was breakfast with my high school Spanish teacher. A few years ago, I discovered that he lived around the corner from me and wrote him a letter (in Spanish) that I slipped into his mailbox. Now we get together every so often to talk (in English) of times gone by and gossip about my former classmates. Despite having lived in Chicago for most of his adult life, Señor had never been to the Mart—because why would he?—and since he'd spent his entire career working in schools, he was fascinated by the atmosphere. There were a few people sitting at a long worktable lit by study lamps, hunched over laptops with coffee. Did they not, he wondered, have somewhere better to be?

We were the only people eating breakfast, though there was a healthy line at the coffee bar. (And here I must report that they sell pastries at a ridiculous markup, and if you are not on an expense account, you should purchase your doughnuts elsewhere.) I think this may have been a surprise to the waitstaff, since they neglected to provide us with silverware or salt and pepper. The cheesy scrambled eggs needed . . . something. The lemon-blueberry- ricotta pancakes had crispy edges but soggy middles, soggier than could be honorably justified by the ricotta. The bacon was delicious, though, perfectly chewy without being greasy, and our coffee (Dark Matter, prepared by a competent barista) came with biscotti, which we agreed was a nice touch.

Since no one else was around, and since he was getting into the restaurant critic role (I felt some regret that I hadn't suggested we wear disguises), Señor began chatting with our server. He asked if it was usually this slow. She said it picked up around lunchtime and then got really busy during happy hour, although more people drank than ordered food. Ah-ha! we realized simultaneously. This was the true purpose of Marshall's Landing!

A few days later, I persuaded a coworker to join me for after-work drinks and snacks. Before she arrived, I spent some time in a comfortable womblike chair typing on my laptop. One nice, though odd, thing about Marshall's Landing is that no one will bother you and ask you to buy something unless you press one of the service buttons conveniently located around the room. The sound system was going through a really excellent playlist of 60s and 70s R&B. It was sort of like hanging out in a hotel lobby, something I adore, except that there was none of that feeling of luxurious idleness that usually comes with a hotel lobby. Everyone was eager to escape.

"This place is really weird," my friend said when she joined me. (She would say it twice more before we left.) We paused for a moment to mourn the departed pop-up lunches, then pressed the button to order some food and drinks. The afternoon menu was much more satisfying than breakfast, though I did appreciate why comparatively few people get food: it's hard to eat gracefully off a coffee table. The toasts that come with the burrata and bruschetta are toasted over a flame, so they have a nice char that contrasts with the sweetness of the cheeses and the bitterness of the greens. The forest mushroom bruschetta has a smear of ricotta and a squidge of balsamic, and the mushrooms are plump and meaty. It's a good dish. The fennel salad that accompanied the burrata was a touch too salty, but the burrata itself was soft and creamy, sweetened only slightly by a light drizzle of honey.

Because it was happy hour, I felt obligated to order some cheese fries and a pink drink called Ladies Who Lunch. The fries were soggy—although I still couldn't stop picking at them—but the drink turned out to be refreshing and astringent, despite its awful name, thanks to a judicious use of cucumbers.

Much to my surprise, though, the dish I enjoyed the most was the Little Gem salad, tossed with avocados, Granny Smith apples, manchego cheese, cashews, walnuts, and an herbed vinaigrette dressing. It had a nice balance of flavor and texture and was also filling enough to qualify as a meal, which is the most you can ask of a salad.

At around 7 PM, our server came by to kick us out. No bleary all-night happy hours at Marshall's Landing! Of course we had someplace else to be. We obediently left, though by that time I'd grown strangely attached to the couch we'd been sitting on, which was soft and woolly, like an old sweater. There is probably some larger point to be made about why people insist on spending too much time at work, and how there's something ridiculous and sad about the way contemporary office design seems to insist upon conflating work and play space, and how Marshall's Landing is a prime example of this. But I will admit: since I'm stuck working near the Mart, I'm glad to know about that couch and salad.   v

Add a comment