June 5, 2017 | BITE: My Journal

Marlow Bistro: Avoiding the Surge

Codfish gnocchi with chorizo in feisty roasted pepper-tomato sauce. Photo: Milica Koceva


          I venture downtown for dinner from my UWS fountainhead these days, anticipating the resistance. Traffic grows constantly more snarled. Construction blocks the route. I used to find comfort in the speed of the subway, braving the crowds, looking daggers at young pups till they surrendered their seats. But the underground crowds are crushing too, and disaster lurks on aging tracks.


The house burger is served with cole slaw, roasted pepper spread and crispy paprika’d potatoes.


          That’s why I like to head uptown at a whisper of cuisinary promise. My pals and I enjoy exploring Harlem eats. I’m always collecting dispatches about new Upper West Side restaurants, searching for soul or ambition. Marlow Bistro has enough of both, I discover. A publicist emails photos, trying to stir up some action.


On that first visit the grump at the podium banishes us to the bar till the rest of our party assembles.


          The first time half a dozen of us burst into the place, a young man at the welcome desk is cranky and brusque. It’s not that we hadn’t reserved. “You’re not all here,” he says. “And I don’t have your table ready anyway.” He directs us to wait in the next room at the bar.


From our seats at the bar we could watch the pizzaiolo toss his dough and tend his pies.


          “I don’t want to wait in the bar,” I lament.  “I like to drink at the table.” But my friends don’t seem to mind at all. They’re caught up ordering Prosecco, and comparing notes on the $13 cocktails. For some reason. three of them are drawn to the Bye Felicia -- vodka, St. Germain, cucumber, mint and lime juice. It’s one of those wintry March evenings, not a likely night for cucumber and mint. I stop pouting and order my more-likely-than-not Negroni. But, in fact, what is really intoxicating for me is the discovery of the pizza oven.


          I’m about to call for a pie to sustain the bar-leaners, when our missing guest finally arrives.


I wish the slices of meat on the Bresaola pie had been warmed a little before delivery to our table.


          “We’ll be seated now,” I announce to the sergeant-at-arms.


          “No, you won’t,” he says. “The people at your table are just getting their check.”  Some of the bar huggers are on seconds when we finally get clearance -- six of us stuffed around a table for four. “I’m ordering a couple of pizzas to start,” I announce. “So everybody pick what you want as a main course, and we’ll do the usual taste and sharing.”


Homemade ricotto cavatelli are tossed with goulash and garnished with sour cream. Photo: Milica Koceva


          I take the liberty of choosing the pies. Diavola with spicy hot sausage and Emiliana with prosciutto and arugula. Not great pizza. Not even competitive. But as the saying goes: Pizza is like sex. When it’s good it’s great, and when it isn’t that good, it’s still okay. I notice a list of purveyors on the blackboard: organic, seasonal, artisanal.


Enthusiasm  for the farm chicken duo with wild mushroom and parsnip seems to have blurred my camera lens.


          The server brings six small tasting plates. I have to ask a few times for serving pieces. And it isn’t that easy to divide the farm chicken duo. I make sure I snatch a thigh and a meaty slice of duck, the evening special, while the timid and well-brought-up ponder and hesitate.


Octopus is served with haricots verts, cherry tomatoes and olives under a lemon-potato foam.


          I am dwelling on a few difficulties at Marlow Bistro, but bottom line, almost everything we taste that night in the bizarre hodgepodge that fills the table and hangs over the edges is good or very good. And some of it is delightfully creative, like the Balkan goulash that turns out to be saucily tossed with homemade ricotta cavatelli.


I’m not very happy with the lemon-squid ink “sand” on the seafood risotto cooked in seafood broth.


          Spaghetti carbonara with black peppercorn bacon sauce and an organic poached egg is properly decadent. As is the house’s own black tagliatelle with calamari, chorizo, and sun-dried tomato pesto. One of my friends can always be counted to choose the tuna tartare. Tonight it’s mixed with avocado and bits of dill cucumbers, topped with crispy wild rice.


Winter desserts included this apple millefeuille with almond crumbs and maple sour cream.


          When the $40 bottle of Côtes Du Rhone is empty, our server brings me a glass of Chateauneuf de Pape. “I think you’ll like this much better,” she says. She surprises us with a hazelnut chocolate mousse with caramelized banana, alongside the lemon curd and orange-white chocolate bavarois we’ve ordered. As we divide the bill -- $54 each, including tip (that’s what comes from settling the cocktail bill at the bar) – I see the wine she brought and the extra sweet are her gifts, too.


Almost a deconstructed lemon meringue pie – lemon curd, orange-white chocolate bavarois and meringue.


          Spring has finally melted its icicles. The sidewalk tables are filling up early. The glacial welcome has warmed, too, on my return last week. Tiny flowers fill two tin pails on our table. And there are seasonal tweaks to the menu from chef Zivko Radojcic. Asparagus here and there, ramp pesto and pickled rhubarb on the ricotta cavatelli, and fresh strawberries in the West Side tequila cocktail. Belgrade born, the Serbian chef arrived in New York in 2010, and worked at Picholine. He considers Chef Terrance Brennan his mentor, the press release notes.


The sidewalk tables are starting to fill on balmy spring evenings.


          One of my companions points out the many potted plants I didn’t see before. Another remarks on the low buzz. “I like that we can talk,” she says. I ponder the benevolence. Sexy mellow music. Bare tables on tile floor. Glass windows. Perhaps it’s the wood rafters on the ceiling high above that absorb the noise? I must have been drunk on pizza last time, I didn’t notice the bright turquoise plates.


Runny poached egg on creamy polenta with Brussels sprouts and bacon sauce is a sensuous must-have.


          We are sharing starters again – octopus with French beans and cherry tomatoes. Warm farro with lemon ricotta, ramps and brown butter, and the sensuous “organic egg nest” – runny poached egg on Brussels sprouts and creamy polenta with bacon sauce. I wish the meat were not quite so cold on the bresaola pizza.


Our server, Tijana B, decides we must have the foie gras balls on cocoa granola rubble as her gift.


          “We didn’t order the foie gras,” I mutter. I find myself avoiding foie gras lately in honor of the hundreds of foie gras variations, both ordered and gifted, in a life of critiquing dinner, starting even before fresh duck foie gras came to New York.


Tijana, the bossy and benevolent server, explains who’s in charge of our table tonight.


          “No, it is me. I am bringing the foie gras,” says our server, Tijana B. She remembers me from the dinner last March. She is Serbian, too. My friends, all a generation or more behind me in foie gras access and excess, are thrilled by the satiny liver inside three little balls anchored on a moon terrain stubbly with cocoa granola and white chocolate powder. I also despise white chocolate. But the toasted brioche is beautiful. And the smooth foie without its rubble is quite fine. I’d almost forgotten how good unseared foie gras can be.


Winter squash and pumpkin seeds give away to spring ramps and brown butter in the warm farro porridge.


          The seafood risotto with lemon-squid ink sand and lobster broth is not quite the black squid ink pasta that my niece Dana expects. It sits, mostly untouched, while the gnocchi with cod, chorizo, and chili flakes in a roasted- pepper-tomato sauce quickly disappears.  


Over-roasted branzino is whole on the bone, served with beet purée and baby turnips in parsley sauce.


          Each of us takes a fourth of the rare burger with coleslaw and pepper spread, quartered for us per my request. The crunchy fingerling slices are excellent too. Whole oven-roasted branzino with parsley sauce could be slightly less cooked for me, but it’s just right for my less fussy friends, atop beet puree, served with small white turnips and Brussel sprout leaves.


Fresh strawberries on panna cotta with aged balsamic and brown butter: lovely mix of sweet and tart.


          Panna cotta topped with ripe strawberries and brown butter in a puddle of aged balsamic has a wonderful taste of the past. The mascarpone mousse, coffee crémeux and dry cocoa lava of Vulcano Etna could be a direct descendant of tiramisu. The chocolate-hazelnut parfait with a passion fruit meringue diplomat turns out to be another gift from Tijana, listed on the bill under “complimentary.”


The “Volcano Etna” combines mascarpone mousse, coffee creméux and coca “lava.”


          I expect I’ll be back. With chef Radojcic’s retro ways and Tijana’s sweetly bossy hospitality, Marlow Bistro joins my small circle of uptown locals.


Belgrade-born Chef  Zivco Radojcic arrived in New York in 2010 and considers Terrance Brennan his mentor.


1018 Amsterdam Avenue between 109th and 110th streets.  212 662 9020. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 4:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 4:30 to 11:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 4 pm. Bar open Sunday to Thursday until 11 pm. Friday and Saturday until midnight.


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