It's tough not to have high expectations for a venture that combines an old favorite - in this case, Marz Bistro - with a prominent chef and restaurateur - Gavin McMichael of The Blacksmith and Bourbon Street. Marz, the 2008 winner of The Source Weekly's Restaurant of the Year, recently sold to McMichael and re-opened under the same name.
Under the new ownership, Marz's hours have expanded to lunchtime. Marz has all of the trappings of a perfect lunch spot: a charming, eclectic atmosphere, a location smack in the middle of downtown and a bar that functions well for counter-style ordering. Add to that the new well-priced lunch menu, which includes a variety of gyro-style sandwiches and a derivative take on the classic Vietnamese soup, pho, and you've got a great new lunch destination.
The first time I visited Marz, I couldn't pass up the pho, a traditional, savory Vietnamese noodle bowl. The soup starts with a sweet and savory meat-based stock, rice noodles, chicken or rare sliced beef and comes with a side of basil, bean sprouts, lime, cilantro, jalapeño peppers and hoisin or oyster sauce. It is, unequivocally, the best remedy for a bad cold, a chilly winter day or a lonely heart.
The Marz version of pho isn't traditional by any means, with a vegetable-based broth.
"We put it in quotes," says Jon Hardy, executive chef. "It's based on the old [Marz] noodle bowl." While the Marz "pho" isn't taking me back to my favorite dirty hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint, it's the first pho in Bend and that deserves a round of applause.
The other daytime offerings include green curry and gyros, Greek-style pita sandwiches. I tried the Tandori chicken gyro with cucumber mint salad and spiced yogurt. The pita had a lovely smokiness and the classic blend of spices and yogurt made for a delicious sandwich. I ordered it with sweet potato fries, which were perfectly fried and well spiced. The sandwich, like most other lunch offerings, is $5.95 alone or $7.95 for a combo, which includes a drink and soup, salad or the sweet potato fries. Service is counter-style, quick and delivery for downtown locations is available.
Unfortunately, my dinner experience was more problematic. When I visited Marz for dinner, my boyfriend and I were the only customers dining at the time. The waitress, who was quite friendly, took our drink order. The weather called for hot toddies and she brought us beautiful looking drinks. Unfortunately, they were bordering on cold. She apologized and offered to remix them with boiled water, which we agreed to but were left wondering if she had simply stuck our glasses under the tap on the first go-round.
We decided to order a large appetizer and entrée to share. For starters, we chose the "taste-trip around the world," which included small portions of the thai seafood cake, asian ribs, samosa and Jamaican jerk skewers ($12.95). For our entrée, we decided to try the Shanghai Roasted Five Spice Game Hens ($17.25).
After our order was placed, the chef came over to our table and apologized, explaining that the game hens were no longer being offered. He offered to comp our appetizer and we ordered the steak special, a 12-ounce rib eye with bleu-cheese butter, instead.
The appetizer looked beautiful, served in four separate dishes. However, each portion was only enough for one person, making it very difficult to share, especially since most were finger foods. The rib (there was only one) was tender and flavorful but the accompanying kimchi was quite bland. The seafood cake was more flavorful but tough. The samosa was bland as well and more of a fried ravioli than the traditional Indian appetizer. And the skewer, when eaten as recommended - wrapped in a piece of butter lettuce - was also lacking. Any subtle flavors that the dish might have offered were overshadowed by the lettuce, which appeared to need a more thorough washing.
Given that the Marz once served one of the better rib eyes around and that the Blacksmith cooks one of the best steaks in town, I was looking forward to trying the alternate entrée. But where Blacksmith soars, the new Marz sputters. For starters, we weren't asked about our temperature preference for the steak. It was served medium and while a bit thin, not bad. The real problem was the accompaniments, which included cold mushrooms, cold snap peas and under-seasoned mashed potatoes. As there wasn't salt or pepper on the table, we found the potatoes too bland to eat.
Whether it's hesitation about upsetting Marz's loyal clientele or a general lack of execution, the new Marz falls short of the admittedly high expectations.
Our restaurant scene is getting better every day, due in large part to McMichael's other ventures. Unfortunately, that leaves little room for error. It's tough to take over an old favorite, but perhaps the best option for this new Marz is for the restaurant to find its niche - even if that means changing out old standbys in favor of a new direction and emphasis on execution.
Marz Bistro, 163 NW Minnesota Ave. 541-389-2025, marzbistro.com.