Of all the celebrity-stamped restaurants at MGM National Harbor, the one vying most for your attention is Marcus, as in chef Marcus Samuelsson. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and showered with praise during his tenure at Aquavit, the acclaimed Scandinavian restaurant in New York, Samuelsson is behind the only brand within the casino extravaganza to serve breakfast, lunch, dinner and room service. The design is forward, too. What looks like a porch out front lets customers pretend they’re dining alfresco, and just inside the entrance hangs evidence of Samuelsson’s sartorial taste, a collection of jackets, hats and more hung by the fashion plate himself.
From its name alone, Fish by José Andrés pretty much tells you what the Spanish chef is selling before you sit down. Same for Voltaggio Brothers Steak House nearby. Marcus, which made its debut with those and other eateries in December, encourages you to come in, have a drink, study the menu.
Deviled eggs, chicken soup, short ribs: The food sounds familiar, and the sight of an order of whole golden chicken making its way from the open kitchen to a nearby table has you mentally licking your lips. When a group of us subsequently order it, we discover a “yard bird” (chicken, in old Harlem) that tastes as rich as it looks. Presented intact, with a plume of singed rosemary, the brined, fried chicken is whisked away and carved in the kitchen. The slices are returned on a wooden board crowded with hot sauce, house-made pickles, fluffy biscuits and tangy collards — enough food and sufficient care to fuel a family reunion.
The $70 feast turns out to be a highlight on a list riddled with disappointments and in a restaurant where service can be a crapshoot.
I applaud Samuelsson’s intentions. Ask a lot of chefs from out of town what lured them to Washington, and the response is some variation on the area’s energy. Samuelsson, an author and TV personality whose portfolio includes Red Rooster in Harlem, doesn’t discount that, but he says job creation in Prince George’s County and bringing a diverse group of people together also appealed to him. To that end, Samuelsson recruited a fellow Swede, executive chef Carl-Bastian Giesecke, who knows of large playgrounds, having helped open the Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. The interior layers Africa on America in a brasserie that incorporates tribal tapestries, zebralike stripes on the bar, an open kitchen and coffered ceilings. It’s a popping look, but a warm one.
The menu is written to bond with locals. “Wild Go Go” chicken wings are not especially racy. They do, however, elicit a smile when they’re followed by hot scented towels for cleaning up. It’s unclear what makes a couple of crab cakes “Bowie,” but I like the dominance of jumbo lump crab and the thimble of creamy potato salad riding shotgun. “Aunt Mable’s” corn bread is free for the first loaf, $5 for another. Odds are, you are unlikely to pay for what can be gummy and sweet.
The food I’m most drawn to at Marcus tends to slip in some tropical hits and African notes. Sauteed catfish rests on rice that’s swollen with a zesty sauce thickened with shaved coconut. The dish hints of berbere, the Ethiopian spice blend of chile peppers, garlic, ginger and other tongue teasers. Morsels of crab sweeten the picture. Catfish also makes it into a sandwich, spiked with jerk aioli, that would be more appealing without the institutional french fries as its neighbor.
I can only hope “Grandma’s” bland beef meatballs and dense, ear-shaped pasta got lost in translation, because the sorry plate does not make a diner think fondly of maternal figures or Scandinavia. Chicken soup is a head-scratcher, too. The murky broth, which supports an egg and pasta as well as a few stray chicken shreds, tastes mostly of pepper.
Dishes designed for sharing, like the whole fried chicken, tend to offer the most rewards. “Obama’s” short ribs — a block party gathering tender and winy beef, roasted squash rings and potatoes mashed with blue cheese — reference the main dish Samuelsson served the 44th president at a Harlem fundraiser in 2011.
The signature vegetarian entree makes a “steak” out of a thick slice of red cabbage, grilled so that the edges take on the char and crust of cooked beef. The slab sits on a crimson sauce of beet juice and wine and is topped with tofu pureed with herbs and farro tossed with pickled mushrooms. One more ingredient would send the entree over the top; as is, the show is good for a few bites. (Hey, it’s a LOT of burned cabbage for one person.)
Servers who don’t write down orders give me pause. I held my breath the night a waiter surveyed six of us for dinner, yet he managed to nail every request, including a changed drink. By the end of the night, I wanted to ask the guy to join us for dinner. Sadly, his bravura performance — there as needed, personable but never intrusive — is not standard operating procedure at Marcus.
Just as good waiters can help smooth over a poor performance from the kitchen, lesser ones tend to reinforce mistakes on the plate.
The server who interrupted everyone, individually, with “How do you like it?” before we even took a bite of food? She didn’t make me think better of the crab gratin, pleasantly creamy but missing any suggestion of its advertised lemon grass and ginger.
Her colleague who inserted himself into so many conversations I contemplated asking for a restraining order? He didn’t endear me to the banana cheesecake, a barge embedded with vanilla wafers, served with a vague rum syrup and robed in white chocolate the color of a canary. Chunks of peel-on (!) bruleed banana sank any chance the dessert had of
being explored for more than a
Notes to staff: When you pour wine for a guest’s approval, give them more than a droplet and aim for the glass, not the table. Also, diners appreciate seats that have been swept of crumbs before they sit down. A banquette should not feel like a day at the beach.
Marcus has a few things in its favor. But the odds are better down the hall.
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101 MGM National Ave., Oxon Hill, Md.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $9 to $21, sandwiches and entrees $18 to $70.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.