"There's two seats open at the kitchen bar," a server at Tacoma's Marrow offered, motioning at a communal butcher-block table that looked very much like a Seattle seating arrangement. "But I don't know if you want to sit between other people."
Hailed by excited Tacoma residents as a harbinger of more sophisticated dining citywide, the 18-month old Marrow features many of the hallmarks of big-city restaurants -- along with a refreshing sensibility that much of what counts as urbane nowadays may not thrill eaters. So customers aren't unilaterally ordered to sit alongside strangers, and while the menu is loosely grouped into meat and vegetable dishes, servers helpfully indicate where the shareable appetizers end and the individual entrees begin.
"We wanted to set trends here in our hometown," chef Kyle Wnuk last summer told the Weekly Volcano. "I'm a Tacoma guy, not Seattle. Marrow is our chance to be a leader -- not a follower -- in this industry."
Although the restaurant's still young, a recent visit occasioned by the need to find a restaurant at which to meet friends from Olympia suggested Marrow's already a leader in hospitality: Numerous concerned-seeming staffers offered us the same vacant seats at the bar, with the same apologetic caveat, and our server greeted us as though she was genuinely glad to have us at her table. That's a remarkably rare occurrence in Seattle.
As for the food, Marrow probably wouldn't be a standout in Seattle. But that's a very, very high bar for any restaurant to reach: Eaters in most cities would be overjoyed to have easy access to a restaurant as polished as Marrow.
The 50-seat Marrow is a 21-and-up venue, and it's making the most of its spirits license. The cocktail list is surprisingly edgy, although perhaps not quite as edgy as the text indicates: When I asked after a rye drink which listed Domaine de Canton, lemon and "New Deal Distillery" among its components, I learned the reference to Portland's New Deal Distillery was inserted by mistake. But it's a small thrill to find Art of the Age's wonderfully weird Root liqueur in Tacoma, lending its medicinal earthiness to a bourbon drink.
Cocktails and snacks are Marrow's strength, although none of the entrees we ordered went uneaten. The promised funky flavors of a risotto dish remade with farro slumped on the plate, but the grains were nicely cooked. Another schticky dish, a lentil Wellington, was also more fun to ponder than eat, yet the plate was saved by a downright terrific mash of Yukon Gold potatoes and celeriac, lest anyone think Tacoma isn't hip to vegetable trends.
The root vegetables reappeared with a wild boar shank, tender and a mite better than an underseasoned flatiron steak. But easily the best use of red meat we encountered at Marrow was the saucy, sonorous braised oxtail en croute, which was just a salt shake away from perfection (in contemporary fashion, there's no salt on the tables, although servers add cucumber slices to their patrons' water glasses. It's a testament to the quality of service at Marrow that the ritual doesn't read as annoyingly twee.) Nearly as good are the cheddar potato doughnuts - really just crusted mashed potatoes - with an irresistible smoked jalapeno dip.
Before reaching Marrow, I unfairly wondered whether the restaurant could pull off the quail eggs, quince paste, geoduck and prosecco espuma, among other uber-trendy ingredients on its menu. I owe Marrow an apology, and I owe Tacoma more visits in 2013.