Culinary “British Exploration” at Marazul Lacks Focus

My goodness, this pan–Latino Asian bistro and rum bar has a lot going on!

Something happened to George Lucas between the first Star Wars trilogy and the second. I know I’m dog-paddling in deep waters of geekery here, but as someone who grew up playing with R2D2 and Chewbacca figures, I was distraught when episodes I through III turned out to be almost unwatchable. There was too much going on, none of it plot-related: The screen writhed and trembled with special effects, every square foot occupied by seven-legged aliens and space architecture. Some ex-fans say too much success was responsible for the second series’ saturnalian visuals. Others say that when Lucas divorced his wife Marcia (who won an Oscar for editing the first movie), he lost the one person who could rein him in.

We all need a good editor.

So as I segue into my review of Marazul, the new restaurant in the Pan-Pacific Hotel on Denny (on the plaza above Whole Foods), you get some sense of my take on the place. Marazul certainly doesn’t lack for funding or good ideas. It’s just a shame there’s so little focus.

The restaurant’s promise, and problems, all center around its unifying theme (noted on the menu): “British exploration.” Fortunately—or perhaps unfortunately—for chef Bruce Dillon, the global reach of European colonialism provides a ton of ingredients for him to play with. His palette includes Caribbean, Southeast Asian/Indonesian, Indian, and Japanese flavors. (Dillon did not wish to be limited by the strict boundaries of the British empire. The Havana-style dishes, I think, may qualify based on an 11-month war the British waged with Spain over Cuba in 1762.) The large menu’s ceviches, sushi, hot and cold appetizers, and large plates are all made for sharing, so the cultural mash-up you might find on the table at any moment is beyond my powers of calculation.

In keeping with the colonizing theme, diners can look through a wall of windows along Denny Way and admire the South Lake Union of tomorrow, or the construction thereof. The bar draws local tech workers and condo owners, slipping downstairs for rum drinks and low-priced happy hour snacks, while the restaurant seems to be sparsely populated with hotel guests and a few trust-funded Cornish students. (If you’re none of the above, by the way, you can get 90 minutes of validated parking in the garage.)

Matching its expansionist setting is its scale: The restaurant is cool in both its oceanic palette and its mod-baroque decor. There’s a lot to take in, from the floral carpet covering the multitiered floors to the mix of wicker and wood chairs to the techno-tropical coconut palm columns with wooden fronds that fan out along the ceiling. More Jetsons-on-the-Lido-Deck is the cocktail lounge, whose massive bar arcs around a wall of backlit rums. On each visit, my friends and I couldn’t stop staring at the mosaic-covered wall near the door—or rather, at two vulval openings thereon, through which water streams. Um?

When Chef Dillon’s technical skills followed through on his creativity, he produced high points like the hot and sour black cod. The flesh of the roasted fillet was gorgeously caramelized, the meat softly flaking away onto the fork, with a sweet-tart sauce whose sharpness was smoothed out by a dollop of avocado puree. A cushion of boniato-cassava mash (two Southern Hemisphere root vegetables) underneath had a weirdly chunky-sticky texture, but at least it was perfectly seasoned.

A lot of dishes hit the same sweet-tart tone of the sauce successfully, whether they were tuna tartare mixed with a tangy mango-onion relish, or a salad of chopped romaine leaves tossed with spiced peanuts, orange segments, and creamy hearts of palm in a flashy citrus vinaigrette. Dillon’s satisfying reinvention of “bang bang” chicken turned a classic Szechuan dish—spicy peanut sauce spooned over poached chicken—into a watercress-chicken-cucumber salad. The sweet peanut-scented vinaigrette it was dressed with neutralized the electric heat of the Szechuan peppercorns.

But time after time, any pleasure I might have taken in the preparation of a dish was overshadowed by ontological confusion: Why had its creator done what he’d done? Sometimes, Dillon had forced several nice flavors together like a bad (polyamorous) blind date, such as a “Havana-style pad thai” that set rice noodles and mixed shellfish alongside the discordant flavors of five-spice Chinese sausage and coconut curry. When he placed three moist “jerk pork” tenderloins—rubbed with an appealing Caribbean-ish spice mix—atop plantains, he surrounded them with a sweet soy syrup that, instead of uniting fruit and meat, made me shove the two ingredients to opposite sides of my plate. Perhaps here’s the place to suggest that you don’t get the burnt-ca ramel tangerine flan paired with honey vanilla grapefruit.

Other dishes were just plain overthought. Dillon spent so much time tricking out a curried chawanmushi (a savory Japanese custard) with fresh crab meat and julienned black mushrooms that he missed the point of the dish: The dense custard tasted as if it had been made ahead and reheated, obliterating the texture of silky clouds that is chawanmushi’s raison d’etre. Striped bass ceviche was covered, literally, with pickled garlic, dabs of red chile jelly, a pouf of sprouts, and some tobiko. (As you may know, pickled garlic and chile jelly are not subtle flavors; raw fish is.) For the tunapica lollypops, my favorite George Lucas moment of all, the chef took a really tasty rice fritter studded with olives and currants, then wrapped a perfectly nice slice of raw tuna around it and stuck a sugarcane skewer into the resulting “lollypop.” I, the diner, was supposed to dip the cold-hot ball into either (both?) a syrupy Indonesian ketjap manis or some bonito flake/sesame seed/salt combo. It was a lot to absorb in one bite, provided I could even maneuver the thing to my mouth before it fell off the “stick.”

Lack of space prevents me from mentioning the sugarcane press, vaunted in the P.R. materials but almost absent from the cocktail list; the unpolished but incredibly sweet service; and the scavenger-hunt path to the faraway bathroom. Then again, no use belaboring the point.