Up to now Chicago has never had a real brasserie--those brightly lit, lively, spacious restaurants Paris is full of, where hearty Alsatian dishes merge with high spirits and free-flowing wine and beer. (The word actually means "brewery.") Brasseries are where you often come with a crowd, any time of night, to eat a full meal or just to slurp up a liter of beer and a snack.
Now we have a close approximation in Marche. At least it's being billed as a "French grand brasserie" by owners Jerry Kleiner, Dan Krasny, and Howard Davis, the threesome who brought you Vivo, the restaurant right across the street, a sort of dining extension of the club scene that comes up short on real eating.
Marche, which means "market," is the current hot spot for the club crowd, like Vivo attracting a chicly dressed army of traders, lawyers, and media and entertainment celebs. The place is theatrical: A pair of huge carved mahogany doors open onto a vast warehouselike space, with a large open cooking area to the right and a fabulous, undulating granite bar ahead to the left. A huge center aisle leading to the bathrooms and the coat check lets you display yourself to the drinkers and two tiers of diners on the right, many in velvet banquettes. Local artists have painted bright, expressionist collages onto the large square pillars, and massive art-nouveau chandeliers light the room brightly. It's almost always crowded--and very noisy. The place has a blaring sound system, and it's built to amplify, not muffle sound.
But its saving grace is chef (and partner) Michael Kornick, one of the legion of former Gordon chefs--and one of the best who did time there. Kornick has also headed the kitchen at the Eccentric and at the now-shuttered Quilted Giraffe in New York. His concept is a brasserie setting that features French bistro and Mediterranean cooking rather than Alsatian cuisine.
A splendid tuna starter ($8) encrusted with coriander seed was seared crisply on the outside but virtual sushi in the center, pumped up with a spot of horseradish. The smoked salmon ($9) was smooth and unctuous, strewn with fresh fennel and dabbed with a lemony aioli. The most definitively bistro-type starter was brandade ($5), a creamy puree of potatoes and salt cod blended with fine olive oil, enough for two and perfect for spreading on toast rounds. It was accompanied by sprigs of watercress in a light dressing. Onion soup ($5), another bistro staple, was a little sweeter than I prefer but mercifully not inundated with cheese. The day's special, butternut squash soup ($5), was pure satin.
We tried two fish dishes. On the plus side was a seared monkfish filet ($16)--the meaty fish absorbed its herbs and garlic beautifully. It came with caramelized leeks that didn't quite live up to their promise and a lovely light splash of broth hit with peppercorns. But what might have been a superb item, skate wing with a black-butter sauce ($15), was marred by an ammonia odor, a sure sign that the skate is over the hill.
Marche's frenzied atmosphere may account for why details like checking the skate may not get Kornick's full attention--or why our spit-roasted chicken ($13) was a bit charred at the edges, though otherwise wonderfully flavored and crisp. This dish came with a foothill of very thin, perfect french fries and a rich onion confit.
The couscous, served most places in a large mound accompanied by smaller amounts of meat, poultry, or vegetables, was more like a side order here, chaperoning half a garden of grilled veggies: eggplant, zucchini, scallions, yellow squash, red and yellow peppers, and porcini mushrooms ($9). A zesty, carrot-based broth helped meld the flavors of vegetable and grain into a pleasing whole. One of the finest dishes on the menu was another bistro dish, braised lamb shank--one of the most succulent parts of the beast--accompanied by a mound of velvety mashed potatoes and a lovely aioli full of parsley and thyme that bolstered the meat's flavor ($14).
Our party followed this with a caesar salad ($4), which was crisp but bland. In the conventional French manner we also had some cheese, which was properly served at room temperature but, alas, had been sitting out so long that some pieces were dry. This problem comes when a restaurant doesn't move its cheeses quickly, and it's why most other places err by serving them right out of the fridge.
No complaints about the desserts, other than not having left enough room for them. Green apple sorbet with cider and fresh apples was refreshing ($5). The chocolate pot de creme ($3) was a perfect pudding; the mousse of bittersweet chocolate with Armagnac ($5) went it one better in lightness. If you're a real glutton for sweetness go for the Coconut Bavarian with triple vanilla anglaise ($4).
While the food prices here aren't out of line, the wines are a bit stiff--easily a buck too high by the glass, a couple or more too much by the bottle. But with closer attention to detail in the kitchen and some more authoritative dishes, this place could almost be a real brasserie.
Marche, 833 W. Randolph, serves lunch from 11:30 to 2 Monday through Friday, dinner 5:30 to 10 Monday through Thursday and 5:30 to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 226-8399.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Peter Barreras.