There are practical reasons why business cards are made from card stock and ink instead of eggs and heavy cream, but it surely would have been handy if Greg Atkinson could have parceled out his pea flan while seeking backers for his new Bainbridge Island bistro. The jiggly, foamy flan is a scion of the muses near (the farmers market up the street) and far (France) which guide the goings-on at Restaurant Marché, the first one at which Atkinson—James Beard Award-winning food writer and former Canlis toque—has served as owner and head chef.
RESTAURANT MARCHE 150 Madrone Lane, Bainbridge Island, 842-1633, restaurantmarchebainbridge.com. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
The splendid flan, made from pea vines and morels, is a springtime tramp, fast with its fresh, grassy flavors. As pale green as mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, the dish tastes like May remade as a spoonable pudding. This is how Pacific Northwesterners ought to eat on a sunny 60-degree day.
I was steered to the flan by a server visibly alarmed that a surrogate had taken my appetizer order; the stand-in presumably took pity because nobody had approached me during the first 15 minutes I was seated at the compact kitchen bar. Sure that I'd be unable to stomach much else after a half-dozen baked oysters blanketed in a frothy sabayon, the truant server ventured that the flan, sold as a side dish, might complete my meal. Knowing it wouldn't, I asked for a vegetable plate on which the flan appears.
It wasn't the first time at Marché (unrelated to the French bistro also named Marché that Daisley Gordon opened in Pike Place Market last year) that I'd seen servers mismeasure guest appetites. On an earlier visit, when I was dining with three people—a six-foot-tall woman, an accomplished snowboarder, and a visiting Swede—a server confidently endorsed the small shellfish platter, assuring us that three oysters, a pair of crab claws, and a half-dozen shrimp would suffice for an all-table starter. Later, he flinched when we hungrily ordered all four desserts he described, volunteering to ask the kitchen whether it was possible to get a half-sized cookie tray.
Unlike so many restaurants run by chefs infatuated with ingredients, Marché is not a hothouse for gorging. Although the restaurant is still wrestling with opening issues, it excels at a kind of chambray-and-Top-Siders refinement. Not every dish is as tasty as the whip of pea vines and morels, but—to a plate—they're exceedingly tasteful. Guests are well-advised to be the flan, and arrive in a dainty, featherweight frame of mind. And since reservations are very nearly compulsory at Marché, giving guests plenty of time to plot their at-meal moods, it wouldn't hurt to cultivate some patience, too: The rhythm of dinner here is determined by the servers' aptitude, not the diners' desires.
Bainbridge Island has a smaller pool of seasoned servers from which to draw than Seattle, and the young crew's inexperience shows. Overwhelmed by the restaurant's instant popularity, the servers haven't yet had a chance to learn how long it takes the oven steamer to turn out dense, oblong rolls ("17 all day!" cried a server at the kitchen window, indicating exactly how many guests were currently bread-deprived) or familiarize themselves with the wine list. A server who took an order for port trotted back to the table to say the bar didn't stock any ports, but he'd poured a glass of sauternes to accompany a chocolate torte, which is tantamount to putting two alpha gorillas in the same cage.
Back-of-the-house staffers are also on the wrong end of the learning curve in a few critical areas. The kitchen is equipped with a wood-fired grill that usually runs on applewood, and cooks accustomed to turning dials are still figuring out how to adjust times and temperatures by the log. In the meantime, every grilled dish is a gamble. Marché's salmon is impeccably sourced from Lummi Island Wild, a reef-netting co-op, but the pincushion of fish—presented with a lump of rhubarb gratinee—was unevenly cooked. The meat of a steak frites preparation picked up an attractive crust on the grill, but it was overdone and underseasoned, with all the salt allotted for the plate seemingly ending up on the thickly cut fries.
The kitchen's also furnished with an immersion circulator and a sous vide water oven that simplifies the preparation of a lovely salade Lyonnaise. In classical fashion, a perfectly poached egg is perched on rough frisée leaves touched with mustard and scattered with crisp croutons and smoky lardons.
Since Atkinson has spent decades in kitchens, it's not surprising that Marché's workspace is more tricked-out than its dining room. The eating space is strangely divided: A few wooden tables and orange-fabric-covered banquettes in the front room are protected from the hostess stand by a long azure sideboard; a few more tables are grouped around the open kitchen toward the restaurant's rear and an alcove bar that looks like the holding cell where guests who make too many bread requests are sent. For embellishment, there are botanical prints and live flowering plants, but the restaurant's so busy that patrons provide the primary decoration: Yacht owners who've motored over from the city join freshly showered Bainbridge Islanders to fill the lively room.
Atkinson has lived on the island for 15 years, and has forged strong relationships with locals while remaining close to friends back in the city. He writes a column for The Seattle Times, and in 2009 was picked by his peers to receive the Angelo Pellegrini award, recognizing a lifetime of service to food in the Puget Sound area. The longtime culinary instructor cuts a likable presence in the kitchen, where he's often stationed, shucking shigoku oysters. Although he assures inquisitive guests that he's "volatile," he looks like a skinny John C. Reilly and has the public demeanor of Alex P. Keaton's dad. "Do you need a towel?", he concernedly asks a server struggling to grasp a hot plate. He's also extraordinarily good at preparing vegetables.
Other than a standout trout meunière—a delicate, butter-enhanced statement of spring fever—the entrées at Marché are notable mostly for their accompaniments. The full-throated lentils on a roast-duckling plate are terrific, as are the gently braised leeks and creamy fingerling potatoes supporting the salmon.
Before dreaming up Marché, Atkinson was planning to head the kitchen at Kailash, a high-end vegetarian restaurant that never materialized. Yet his thinking about what it means to elevate meatless cuisine hasn't gone to waste: It's evident in a tightly wound buckwheat crêpe jammed with mushrooms and melty sharp cheese; in a gorgeous salad of slivered beets, carrots, and celeriac, swaddled in a tart rémoulade; and in that absolutely wonderful green-pea flan.
Baked oysters $15
Salade Lyonnaise $10
Market vegetable plate $16
Trout meuniÈre $18
Olympic crÊpe $9