Marlow & Sons’ Quiet Transformation
Did any establishment define early-two-thousands Williamsburg as perfectly as Marlow & Sons? In 2007, in this magazine’s first review of the restaurant—which is also, by loose definition, a bodega, peddling artisanal sundries, and a café—Lauren Collins described the aesthetic as “pure ironic-nostalgic pastiche . . . something like Ellis Island by way of Epcot.” Twentysomething creatives would flock to the place, which just turned fifteen, for oysters and speakeasy-style cocktails in the evening, then return, hungover, for breakfast and third-wave coffee in the morning.
The menu, though, resisted mockery: it was straightforward and sterling, changing frequently with the seasons but anchored by unpretentious crowd-pleasers like flaky biscuits, tortilla española, pâté, and the signature “brick chicken.” The restaurateurs Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow (“Marlow” is a portmanteau of their names)—who met working at Keith McNally’s Odeon, and first opened Diner, next door to Marlow—have always had a great knack for finding and retaining kitchen talent, using the success of each place to open another. The Marlow mini-empire eventually included Roman’s and Reynard, in the Wythe Hotel, plus a butcher shop–grocery store, Marlow & Daughters; a bar, Achilles Heel; and a wholesale bakery called She Wolf.
All have, remarkably, held strong, although Tarlow bought Firth out of the business in 2010 (Firth moved to the Berkshires, where he runs a farm and a tavern called the Prairie Whale, in Great Barrington) and recently divested from Reynard and the Wythe. The business even seems, as of late, to be experiencing a revival, coinciding with the return, last summer, of Caroline Fidanza, who was the original chef at Diner and then went on to open the dearly departed sandwich shop Saltie.
Fidanza, now the culinary director of the whole restaurant group, must be giving everything a nice, hard spit and shine. Diner is as good as it’s ever been. Roman’s is arguably at its best, especially when you catch a Saltie-esque sandwich at weekend brunch. She Wolf supplies many of the city’s buzziest restaurants with superlative sourdough. Most interesting of all, Marlow & Sons, under a new chef, Patch Troffer, is undergoing a quiet but distinctive identity shift. When Tarlow asked Troffer—who moved from the Bay Area, where he worked at Bar Tartine and Camino, and whose grandmother is Japanese—what kind of food he wanted to be cooking, he replied, “Japanese-American farm food.”
And so it came to be that the brick chicken, still impressively succulent and golden-skinned, is served with shiitake mushrooms and sweet potatoes that have been roasted in koji, a mold that grows on rice and is used to make soy sauce. A selection of pickles includes a tart wakame kraut and a pear kimchi that strikes a wonderful balance of unexpected sweetness and heat. The excellent, crispy yet pliant sour-cabbage pancake, topped with mayonnaise and fluttering bonito flakes, is an okonomiyaki by another name. Tuesday is Japanese-curry night, when a supremely crunchy pork katsu comes with a bowl of rice seasoned with house-made furikake, shredded cabbage drizzled in tonkatsu sauce, and, of course, a scoop of creamy dashi-and-mirin-based curry, punctuated with slippery whole turnips.
It’s a surprisingly successful transition, which manages to infuse new life into the place without sacrificing too much nostalgia. The décor—dark wood, salvaged antiques, no tablecloths—is unchanged, and, on a few recent evenings, the crowd seemed to be composed of those same twentysomethings, now in their thirties and forties, discussing child rearing and film rights. There are still oysters, and strong cocktails, including one called the Calpis Chuhai, made with a tangy Japanese-style yogurt soda and shochu. If, at the end of the night, the café (which still serves roast-beef sandwiches and that tortilla) has leftover cookies and croissants, the staff will still parcel them into paper bags for departing diners. But, first, order the yuzu-curd tart. (Dishes $14-$33.) ♦