It is not a very nice January evening, cold creeping wet and slushy as we make our way, arm-in-arm, to the front entrance to Marco. We arrive before 6pm but already there are many cars in the lot; early-birders, no doubt, seeking nourishment before darkness descends entirely. We are greeted by a cheerful but business-like woman who quickly checks then informs us there is one table left in the dining room, unless we'd rather sit in the bar area? I am fearful of that cold following us through the nearby entryway, so opt for seating deeper within the building. As it turns out, our table in the far corner is also prone to random breezes (mostly from scurrying servers), but it doesn't distract too much. We are Michiganders, after all; we adapt to vagaries of temperature and clime.
The menu is complex and delightfully varied. In past, I've thought Marco offered rustic Italian or Spanish fare, but in reality the dishes are French-influenced with some international highlights. Our server brings us ice water. He seems dour at first, but becomes friendlier and communicative as the night wears on. We begin with some sparkling wine from Michigan. The bubbles are nice, though the wine itself is much sweeter than I like. Still, it's a nice way to start the meal.
Rather than go the obvious route (calamari), I decide to surprise Juliet and order the mushroom gratin. Her eyes light up—a phenomenon that I love and which, quite frankly, pushes me to perform surprising feats just so I can see her reaction. Is this one of those times? Yes and no. See, just a few days before, I had the extreme pleasure to try trumpet mushrooms at Reserve with sweetbreads and a rabbit gnocchi. They were so amazing, most of my fears were invalidated. I now feel compelled to try other varieties, and Marco's gratin claims "exotic mushrooms" among the ingredients. If by "exotic" they mean "button" they are correct. And I'm still not down with spongy, chewy, button mushrooms. Even so, the dip is thick, cheesy, buttery, with just the right amount of meatiness that, when spread on a crostini or (better yet) the fresh-baked rolls, it's a rich, decadent appetizer...though I am somewhat regretting not ordering the calamari.
For a main entree, I only have eyes for the Chorizo Pizza. Then our waiter trots out tonight's feature: Garlic crusted Black Grouper atop ratatouille and mashed potatoes surrounded by a red pepper sauce. Dilemma! We quickly confer and agree to share those two dishes. Pinot Noir seems like the logical choice and it's a good thing we order two glasses. It is refined, steely, with subdued fruit and vanilla undertones...all of the characteristics of some of the finest Russian River Valley wines. Juliet guesses Williamette Valley. We are both surprised when our server informs us it is from Santa Barbara, from a small-batch winery who only produces 500 cases of this Pinot Noir. Marco is only one of two Michigan restaurants who offer it. (The name he gives us is "Elusive" though I've yet to find any more information on it.)
Our food arrives. My first bite of the pizza is confounding. The chorizo is spicy; the crust is flavorful, light, and crunchy; and the toppings are fresh. But there is something among the pineapple, red onion, and cilantro that eludes me. Luckily, Juliet points out the sauce is actually roasted red peppers. It adds a nice heat and sweetness. Once that mystery is solved, I am able to fully enjoy another slice. The grouper, on the other hand, is immediately recognizable and accessible. I peel off a forkful of thick, moist fish meat, mixing in some veggies from the ratatouille, making sure I get a smidgeon of piped mashed potatoes and red pepper sauce. Simply amazing. The fish is almost like a pork chop, mild yet cloaked in a faux-skin of garlic crust. The ratatouille is as good as any I had in Paris. I find myself ignoring the pizza (for a moment) and digging in, again and again, to the fish.
No room for dessert, unfortunately. I enjoy a quick espresso, then we bundle up again for the trek back out to the car. Chef bids us a good night from the host stand and we thank him for a lovely meal. Marco, with the exception of some recurring lighting difficulties, is an atmospheric and authentic dining experience that might have been plucked from any Parisien boulevard. We will be back, and soon I hope.
The hostess seems slightly disappointed when we announce we do not have reservations and leaves with a furrowed brow to go check the dining room. She quickly returns to report they have one table left in the main dining room or we can dine in the bar. We opt for the former and follow her in, very pleased to find yet another Grand Rapids eatery full and busy.
We decide to start with a glass of sparkling wine and choose one from Michigan, an uncharacterteristic move for us as we tend to prefer dry California, Spanish, or Italian bubbles over the (usually, but not always) sweeter Michigan varieties. The wine isn't as dry as I typically like, but only very slightly sweet.
Jeremy surprises me further by ordering the exotic mushroom gratin to start. I know he's becoming much more adventurous with food, but this seems out of character given there's no "escape hatch" with this appetizer. It's essentially all mushrooms. The gratin arrives piping hot, still bubbling from the oven, and surrounded by crispy slices of French bread. I mound a spoonful of the 'shrooms with their light fontina and asiago cheese sauce on my bread and joyfully munch away. I adore mushrooms. Now the menu lists white truffle oil as an ingredient but I'm getting more of a white wine scent off the dish. Usually I can smell white truffles right off, but tonight I can't taste or smell a trace of the truffle oil. While all the mushrooms appear to be just white button mushrooms (there is nothing exotic going on here), I enjoy the gratin and finish it off. Jeremy's clearly not as taken with it as I am.
Midway through the mushrooms, a bread basket arrives with slices of white bread and two gorgeous freshly-baked rolls. The rolls are piping hot and oh-so-lovely when schmeared with the accompanying herb butter.
My entree comes with a house salad, which we happily split. It's very tasty with a honey vinaigrette coating the mixed greens, caramelized walnuts, and julienne strips of tart apple. The nuts and apple combination reminds me of the Waldorf salads my mother would make when I was a kid. Something about a slightly sweet salad seems kind of naughty; I always feel like I'm getting away with something when I eat one.
We're both torn between a few items on the menu, so we agree to split our dinner orders. Jeremy chooses the pizza with chorizo, pineapple, red onion, cilantro, and a roasted red pepper sauce. It has a fabulous aroma that wafts up to my nose just before it hits the tabletop. The sauce is slightly sweet as is the pineapple. The chorizo packs a nice kick, kind of a slow burn, not too much. I really like the crust which is neither too thick nor too thin. Before I realize it, I devour an entire piece of pizza and eyeball a second one.
In the meantime, Jeremy picks at my fish special, a garlic-crusted black grouper on top of a ring of pureed potatoes filled with ratatouille. The grouper filet is well over two inches thick and as I cut into it I discover what a substantial piece of fish this is. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn this was a piece of chicken or pork. The top of the filet has a very light, crunchy coating of garlic. The ratatouille is divine with red and yellow peppers, eggplant, onions, and zucchini. Each veggie is perfectly cooked with some bite left. (Maybe it's just me but until I tried it, I always assumed ratatouille would be mushy and overcooked.) There is a bit of a kalamata olive relish daubed along the perimeter of the plate. I make myself a perfect fork-full of grouper, potato, ratatouille, and relish. Then I make a few more.
In the spirit of sharing, we enjoy a glass of pinot noir with each of our entrees and it works beautifully with both the fish and the pizza. Marco's only has one pinot noir by the glass and our waiter tell us the Santa Barbara vintner produces only 500 cases per year.
I am impressed to see the chef taking several passes through the dining room, surveying diners and helping clear tables. Our entire experience was a positive one and I would love the chance to go back for lunch or to try the bar menu one night.