When D’Amico Kitchen closed in the Chambers, doomsayers wondered if the place was cursed, stinking of the evil eye formerly thrown by Jean-Georges as we railroaded him out of town. But no downtown spot is cursed, especially one in a swank hotel owned by Ralph Burnet: He downright forbids it. However, if a biggie out-of-town name can’t do it, and then a local empire builder can’t do it, what’s the winning ticket? Usually, the answer would be steak. But here’s the problem: I don’t think you could put another meat house in that corridor. With Fogo up the road, The Capital Grille across the alley, Seven across the street, Manny’s not too far to the east, and Butcher & The Boar down the block, beef and pork are covered.
So why not throw the matrix all out of whack by bringing in a fresh restaurateur who has only one other restaurant, one in which butter and beef are decidedly not the star of the show? Enter Craig Bentdahl and Marin, the new Chambers eatery that is closely fashioned after Mill Valley Kitchen, Bentdahl’s other restaurant in St. Louis Park. The idea is fresh and Californian, playing with seasonal, veg-forward food that eschews butter for heart-healthier preparations, even listing the nutritional stats beside each dish. If you are meat-focused, that sounds dismal, but if you are ready for a break from your meat sweats, it sounds rather refreshing. And, for the most part, it is.
The food is modern and plated with style. Small plates are captivating; the spiced cauliflower is all simple elegance with a gorgeously smooth hummus, balanced and flavorful, with crisp salted pita straight from the wood-fired oven. I found myself chasing the very last bit of hummus with cauliflower. Charred salmon belly brings three buttery hunks of salmon on cured cucumbers with a fetching black bean puree that, when swiped, completes that lush umami bite, all brought to you by the good fats.
That’s basically the point of this menu: It tries to deliver those decadently scrumptious bites—which usually come with an excess of, say, pork fat—through creative use of alternative proteins and tricks. It mostly works. On a scallops dish, instead of creamy beurre blanc, there’s a swath of silky corn puree decked with bits of lobster and pieces of popcorn. The lobster made for an extra rich little bite, the corn was a lovely sweet balance, and the popcorn was kinda fun. Yet a side dish billed as warm potato salad was just dry, undressed, unseasoned bits of small potatoes with a tiny tomato and a stray olive here or there. There was no love to that dish. The bison striploin with heirloom beans was perfectly cooked to that soft medium raw that suits it so well, but the arugula pesto needed a bit of extra olive oil and a good hit of cheese to be truly successful. Surprisingly, the dish that I kept going back for was the carrot ravioli with peas and mint pesto. The ravioli were stylish little pockets of carrot puree (not too sweet, not too carroty) with a minty hit brought to savory by pine nuts. Simple, well-executed, exciting, and not a piece of meat in sight.
If this sounds like girl food, you should know that it’s balanced by a very warm, slightly masculine décor replacing the formerly spartan all-white museum chic. Marin’s downstairs level has been transformed into a very clubby library lounge with big leather booths, high-backed chairs, and a few bourbon-lovin’ cocktails. No matter your gender, I think Marin fits here. It fills a niche and brings something fresh to the game. If you are heading downtown to see a show and have had one too many bouts of the post-dinner meat sweats during the performance, you might try the lighter side of Marin next time. 901 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-252-7000, marinrestaurant.com