Cruising for Chowder at the Marketplace Grill

I suck at holidays. One of these days I'm gonna turn up dead on a Christmas or a Valentines Day, and when the police come and find Laura standing over me with a smoking pistol or fireplace poker bent in the precise shape of my head, she's going to get off scot-free simply by explaining about the Christmas that I bought her a framed Area 51 poster and a shotgun that fires suction-cup darts (because, apparently, I was under the impression that she was a 15-year-old boy), or the time I convinced her to put off V-Day for a month because I was busy on February 14, and then, a month later, completely forgot about it.

I'm bad at gifts. I'm bad at celebrating anything. Part of the blame lies in the fact that, for fifteen years, I didn't get to celebrate any holidays because, as a chef, I spent every single one of them (except Christmas Day some years) at work, cooking special dinners for strangers. The rest of the fault lies squarely with me. Whatever gene or area of the brain is responsible for making someone care, in advance, about purchasing flowers, greeting cards or (appropriate) gifts for their loved ones is just broken in my head. I can look at an entire department store full of stuff and think to myself, "Well, there's nothing here anyone could possibly need, but my darling wife--who has put up with me through many years of bullshit and shenanigans, who married me when I was a drunk, unemployed line cook with fewer prospects than a recently paroled serial killer--would probably really dig some freaky Japanese tee-shirt with pictures of anime kitties on it."

This Valentines Day was no different. We made plans of a sort. Like every year, they got hopelessly screwed up by forces both within and completely out of my control. I had a back-up plan (dinner, natch), but that was blown, too, because I forgot to check and see if the restaurant (a totally inappropriate little noodle house, because what special lady doesn't love counter service and a nice bowl of udon on Valentine's Day?) was actually open on Sunday (it wasn't).

Finally, we ended up just getting on the highway and driving--doing what we do best, which is exploring. We ended up down in Gig Harbor because it sounded pretty, and ended up at the Marketplace Grill (8825 North Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor) for dinner, basically because it was open and had tables available.

Gentlemen, a word of advice: As friendly as the people are, as nice as the view might be and as good as some of the food is, the Marketplace Grill is not where you want to go for a romantic Valentines Day dinner. Any other day of the year, absolutely. Just not on February 14. Especially not if you haven't done something clever like hiding a ring in her chowder or arranged for sky-writers to spell out your declaration of love over the harbor. Double-especially-not if you're hoping to get lucky later that night and don't want to go home with clam breath.

Still, setting aside my own idiocy and any notion of holidays inspired by greeting card companies, the Marketplace Grill was actually a good restaurant. And considering I've been dying for a decent plate of fish-and-chips and some proper clam chowder ever since getting suckered in by the Ivar's mythology, it was a dream. I essentially recreated my first Ivar's lunch in the tiny, harbor-view dining area at Marketplace, ordering a bowl of their award-winning clam chowder and their fish fry. And both of the dishes offered by the Marketplace kicked the collective ass of the Ivar's operation, thoroughly and with style.

The chowder was thick without being floury, heavily tinkered with in terms of herbs--tasting of thyme, maybe dill, possibly rosemary (though I didn't notice any rosemary in my bowl) and a bright spike of sherry--and expertly composed of tender clams, diced potatoes and scalded cream. The cup of it was the size of a bowl most places, the bowl the size of a trough. I could've made a meal out of two bowls, then come back for a third for dessert.

And the fry-up? Haddock, the way god intended, fried hard and hot in a lacy, thin batter that turned red-gold in the heat and puffed up as the fish steamed within. The result was a crisp, greasy shell around flaky, cheap-ass fish, still steaming when it hit the tables, paired perfectly with sweet malt vinegar from the shaker bottle on the table.

The menu at the Marketplace is an odd mix of sea shore standards and Caribbean influences, with the kitchen doing a bit of jerk here, some Asian over there. Everything is made from scratch, proudly and daily. From an open, cluttered, short-order line, the kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner all day, pleasing those circadian-challenged individuals who prefer clams for breakfast and waffles for dinner. And sitting there, my back to the bay, looking into the galley, I noticed that the cook had, among other volumes, a battered copy of On Cooking tucked away on his shelf.

This made me smile. On Cooking is one of the modern bibles for working cooks--especially those hanging it all out there, alone in a short-order position. It covers all the basics of making your way in a working kitchen, and ownership of a copy (particularly a well-thumbed and sauce-spattered one) is kind of like holding a line cook's union card: proof that you belong and are earning your whites every day.

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