What's Goin' On?
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 23, 2008
Chicken and waffles on the same menu as waterzooi, Belgium's classic marriage of cream and seafood?
"I love Southern cuisine," explains Eric Hilton, one of four co-owners of the new Marvin restaurant and lounge. Hilton, a local music producer, also claims an appreciation for European culture and the late Motown star Marvin Gaye, who spent time recovering from professional and personal troubles in Belgium in the early 1980s. Gaye, says Hilton, "is my favorite singer and a native son" of Washington.
All of which explains the hybrid bill of fare and the life-size profile of Gaye at one of the most engaging bistros to debut on the restaurant scene in several years.There's no flashy sign announcing what's inside 2007 14th St. NW. Instead, discreet stenciling on the door and a bucket of champagne in the window suggest that the owners want to keep things low-key. Aside from a hostess who doesn't want to seat you until your entire party is present and accounted for, Marvin gives off a warm vibe. The dining room, dressed with framed chalkboards listing wines by the glass and naked light bulbs plunging from the ceiling, looks as if it had been imported from Brussels, and the tunes are a soulful mix of funk, jazz and even (Jamaican) ska. In a city whose restaurants sometimes fail to reflect the existence of Washington's large African American population, Marvin is a happy exception, although the clientele represents a rainbow coalition of faces and ages.
It might take a visit or two to find the treasures on the menu. I know they do not include the baby-back ribs, whose flavor is compared by a dining companion to lighter fluid (accurately, I should add). Nor would I reorder the dry hamburger, or the French onion soup, an uptight version that lacks much depth in its broth. Marvin's firm and cheesy grits outshine their decoration in a starter of shrimp and grits, and a trio of sea scallops set on braised leeks and lapped with a vague butter sauce fails to seduce me. When a friend orders a salad of dandelion greens, our waiter says, "You know they're bitter, right?" Sure enough, they bite, a situation intensified by the presence of lemon and fennel in what amounts to a bush of greens. A few leaves go a long way.
"Liver 'n onions," on the other hand, is an haute hoot: seared foie gras and a nest of caramelized Vidalia onions. Priced like an entree at $15, the first course is also delicious. The pedigreed stars get welcome support from sweet pears and a splash of Banyuls vinegar. Another appealing introduction, a combination that would taste right at home in a Parisian bistro, is the duck confit, framed with tangy pickled beets and a drift of goat cheese. The appetizer that says Belgium more than any other: cheese croquettes, hot and crisp, and chilled out with a little salad.
The kitchen aces some of its Belgian and soul food creations, frequently adding a sophisticated touch to the standards. But the flair, in keeping with the owners' philosophy, is pretty affordable; main courses average $18. From the start, Hilton wanted his new place to offer "food you can eat often" (along with "music you can listen to often").
I've never met a mussel I didn't like here. Served in big white bowls, the steamed seafood comes with a choice of accents that you might wish you could buy by the jar: white wine and shallots; bacon, leeks and beer; creamy mushroom sauce; a zippy coconut curry; and gumbo, which demands a loaf of bread to mop up every drop. The pleasure doesn't stop with the tiny, meaty mussels. Every bit as tempting are their long and luscious french fries -- fried the best way, twice -- which show up with a tray of ketchup, wasabi-spiked mayonnaise and curry-laced mayonnaise (my weakness).
The waterzooi could siphon fans from Brasserie Beck and Belga Cafe, until now Washington's best-known sources of Belgian food. The version at Marvin is big and beautiful, a craggy shrine to lobster, shrimp and mussels in a subtle cream sauce emboldened with wine and clam juice, and broadened with diced carrots and potatoes.The sea of fish has competition, though, in the fried sole, which is teased into a long golden coil that rises dramatically from a smoky bed of collards and (unnecessary) white asparagus. The entree's light breading crackles; its flesh is deliciously moist. The other Southern staple to consider is chicken and waffles, which is just that -- a nice piece of fried chicken atop a single thick waffle, or "breakfast and dinner," as one of my friends put it while drizzling maple syrup on the a.m. component. At its best, that waffle is light and tan, though I've also had one with scorch marks on it.
Not every dish at Marvin looks abroad or down South. The braised pork shank, for instance, is simply a terrific haunch of meat poised on lentils sweetened with diced carrot and garnished with gently cooked haricots verts.
Marvin is a place to hang as well as to eat, a reality underscored by an intimate, second-floor lounge (with a DJ every night of the week) and a long, semi-covered deck that is bound to become a solid gold destination in the summer months, if not now. The formula might feel familiar; the owners of Marvin also count Washington's popular Eighteenth Street Lounge and Local 16 in their portfolio.
Marvin's knowledgeable servers take what they do, but not themselves, seriously. Staff members also seem to get along unusually well. Chef James Claudio, soon to be 25, is a 2003 graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and Hilton's stepson; his sous-chef, Brendan L'Etoile, 25, is the former executive sous-chef at Willow in Arlington and Claudio's best friend from grammar school. "I'm telling you," Hilton says in a phone conversation, "people are tight."
The restaurateur was talking about his team, but he could just have well been referring to the way its fans feel about Marvin, warts and all.
Marvin's Belgian Soul
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, Nov. 16, 2007
The space: Marvin, a new bistro and lounge near 14th and U streets NW has been open barely three weeks. There's no sign outside, just a small plaque on the door.
The dimly lit interior is inviting, moody and seductive, with a continental lounge vibe. A vast back deck promises to be a destination next summer.
It's owned by Eric Hilton, one-half of internationally renowned DJ duo Thievery Corporation and founder of Washington's legendary Eighteenth Street Lounge. The name is a nod to Marvin Gaye, a native Washingtonian responsible for dozens of soul gems, including Hilton's favorite album of all time, "What's Going On." In the early '80s, after some critically panned albums, bankruptcy and a growing drug addiction, Gaye moved to Ostend, Belgium, to detox and put his life in focus. The two years he spent there are the inspiration for Marvin, which offers Belgian food and drink with soul music and a laid-back attitude.
The scene: Downstairs, Marvin is a restaurant. Upstairs, it's a lounge. The two have separate personalities and hours.
The first floor, which is open only for dinner (until midnight on weekends, 11 during the week), is a warm take on the classic European bistro, with dark wood accents, huge mirrors and chalkboard menus. You could say you've seen it all before -- until you notice one wall is dominated by a huge image of Gaye, wearing stunning '70s platform disco boots.
The crowd is a mix of the neighborhood: 20s to 50s (or older), black and white, dressed up for dinner and fashionably dressed down for lounging.
A short bar counter has only eight stools. "We're a restaurant with a bar, not a bar with a restaurant," Hilton says.
Upstairs is a decidedly homey room with framed pictures of music icons such as Josephine Baker and the Supremes above comfortable floral-patterned banquettes, high-backed chairs and round bistro-style tables. The bar area can turn into a zoo when crowds jostle for the bartender's attention at peak periods. The real star is the back deck, which feels as big as the two indoor rooms combined. Its covered bar runs down one wall. Braziers battle the chill (the management team has discussed tenting the deck for the winter).
In your glass: Belgian beers to match the Belgian cuisine. Stella Artois, Leffe Brune, Hoegaarden and the Canadian-made (but Belgian-style) Maudite are among the beers on tap. Thirty Belgian beers are available in bottles. The liquor selection is solid if unspectacular. The selection of wines by the glass is broader than at many nearby bars.
On your plate: Marvin's menu is a curious mix of Belgian classics (mussels and fries, steak and fries) and Southern soul food (chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits). Again, it's a nod to Gaye's time in Ostend, but "selfishly, those are two cuisines I really like," Hilton says.
Need to know: There's no gargantuan bouncer or cover charge. There's no dress code, either, though the crowd generally makes an effort to look stylish, whether that's a retro dress, a vintage-style track top or a sharp-looking sweater.
Nice to know: The DJ booth in the second-floor lounge is occupied seven nights a week, and some of the faces will be familiar to regulars at Eighteenth Street Lounge or the nearby Cafe Saint-Ex. Expect a mix of '60s and '70s soul, funk and R&B -- anything from Motown girl groups to blaxploitation soundtracks to long-lost jams full of Hammond organ.
Price points: About $7 for one of the tap beers, and a buck or two more for one of the better bottles, such as Affligem or Chimay. Cocktails start at $8 if you're requesting a specific brand, and most wines hover around the same price. Dinner entrees range from $16 to $24.