There are quotes from James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher on the menu, and another from Julia Child on the wall behind the bar, all of which hint at the aspirations of this charming place. Quotes don't necessarily mean much (I remember a menu with a highfalutin quote from a French chef but some pretty lowfalutin food on the plates) but the Marion Street Eatery is the real deal.
It's a lovely room, with a laid-back vibe and an understated decor of simple white walls, dark brown woods and interesting paintings by local artist, Kristina Dimitrova (a.k.a.Dimi) -- I loved the three charging bisons that seem almost ready to leap off the wall. I also loved the handsome, mismatched old chairs and the clear glass filament bulbs that hang from the ceiling. Most of all I loved the sense of warmth and enthusiasm that permeates the atmosphere.
It's the creation of chef Melissa Hryb and co-owner Lanell Smith, whose family are the long-term owners of the Marion Hotel. Most of the menu is composed of well-above-average renditions of familiar classics, at prices that are low for the quality (from $8.95 to $14.95). All restaurateurs hope to make a profit, but this place is also, clearly, a labour of love. One of its slogans is "good food made simple"; I'd reverse that to "simple food made good."
An appetizer of creamy risotto with Parmesan, garnished by strips of seared prosciutto and drizzled with lemon vinaigrette, wouldn't be out of place on any of the town's classiest tables. Nor would the plump, beautiful shrimp cloaked in a light garlicky cream sauce and topped by julienned greens. Mushroom caps stuffed with a rich mixture of cheddar, cream cheese and bits of Italian sausage are also delicious, as is the colourful composition of an oven-roasted beet salad with goat cheese, candied pistachios and roasted mushrooms on a bed of greens.
The main courses, burgers and sandwiches include a choice of soup du jour, salad, fries or potato wedges. I never did get to any of the du jours, but for an extra $2 I did have a crock of the great onion soup. The fries are sensational and the wedges good; the caesar salad, although perfunctory on two visits, was excellent on another.
The five dishes listed under Hearty Comforts aren't exactly conventional entrées, but the mac and cheese is one of the best ever, a bubbling cheddar sauce with generous additions of bacon slices and broccoli florets, and a topping of ultra-flavourful crunchy pretzel pieces. Although the individual, cheddar-filled meat loaf could have been moister it was homey, tasty and came with good mashed potatoes and old-fashioned brown gravy. The ground bison chili is topped by havarti, sour cream and crisp onions, and partnered with (a rare let-down) stodgy, dryish bannock. The flaky crusted chicken pot pie was made with chicken that tasted freshly cooked in a creamy sauce that was more soothing than exciting.
The largest part of the menu is devoted to burgers and sandwiches, and all I tried were top-notch. The burger is one of the city's best -- six juicy ounces of richly beefy meat adorned with (along with other usual suspects) bacon, cheddar and garlic-sautéed mushrooms, in an aioli-smeared Kaiser bun. A flavourful six-ounce sirloin comes on a baguette with sautéed mushrooms, peppers and crisply fried onions. The grilled cheese sandwich packs prosciutto, garlic goat cheese, aged cheddar, tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms between slices of rye bread. The grilled Cuban is equally impressive, Italian bread spread with grainy Dijon mustard and layered with roast pork, ham, Gruyère and pickles.
Other possibilities on the menu include salads of oven-roasted salmon with cucumbers, apples, carrots and sunflower seeds, or grilled chicken with cucumbers, chickpeas and a corn, tomato and mango salsa. Also portobello or chicken burgers, and Reuben or pulled pork sandwiches, as well as such add-ons as sweet potato fries and poutine. There is also a lengthy breakfast menu, served until 11 a.m.
Desserts vary from day to day and they are superb ($6.50 each). The creme brulée seems to be a constant; others you might find, depending on the day, include a chocolate cake iced in milk chocolate in a puddle of white chocolate sauce; or a mille feuille of flaky puff pastry layered with lemon-scented pastry cream, with a wedge of fudgy chocolate ganache on the side.
The wine list is limited to only two whites and two reds ($32 to $34), but all four are available by the glass -- and judging by both the white and red Napa Valley Ca Momi, very well chosen ($7.50). The coffee is hot and strong, the noise level civilized, the welcome warm, the service attentive and thoroughly knowledgeable.
In fact, they've taken the time to get just about everything right here, and, in case I haven't yet made myself clear, I love the place.