Saturday, January 28th, 2012

My Darling B and I think we may have found the restaurant that will be our Friday the Thirteenth place.

The Blue Marlin is a cozy little place just off capitol square. It’s one of the buildings squeezed into a wedge of a lot, just like Peppino’s was, but where Peppino’s was on the ground floor of the three-story Jackman Building, which takes up a full third of the triangle block it sits on, The Blue Marlin appears to be tucked into the tiniest of part of a two-story brick building that used to be M.J. Hoven’s Meat Market, a butcher shop built way back in the 1890s.

It’s bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside, but not by much. There’s just about enough room to seat maybe forty or fifty people, and fifty would be crowded, I think. I counted forty-four chairs when we were there last night. I’m not one of those compulsive counters, I was just curious how they got so many people in there. By the time we left around seven o’clock the place was chock full and abuzz with conversation (a notable difference from Peppino’s, which somehow always seemed to be very hush-hush).

As tight as they were on space inside, they set aside room at the front of the restaurant for a closed-off front entrance (we used to call that a breezeway in my neck of the woods) that kept The Merry Little Breezes from blowing up my skirt every time someone walked in, not an insignificant consideration in the dead of winter around here. And there was a coat rack in the breezeway! The Blue Marlin earned two gold stars before we were even in the dining room.

The host seated us at a table for two in the front of the room. There was a small bar at the back of the room, but not for sitting at, just for serving. There was nothing else in the dining room except the tables, which were just big enough that we weren’t crowded, but small enough that we weren’t sitting so far from one another it would make it awkward for us to share our food. The room was just a little chilly when we came in, but we had early reservations and there was almost no one in there when we sat down. Almost every table was filled within the hour and, with so many people in such close quarters, it warmed up soon enough.

My Darling B ordered a lemon drop from the bar to see what the cocktails were like. After a sip or two, she pronounced it was good. This is important. On our first visit to Peppino’s she ordered a cocktail they called a Honey Bee and fell so in love with it that she ordered a cocktail before dinner every time we visited. Sadly, they stopped making Honey Bees after that first visit and she’s never found anyone anywhere who makes them like the one she had that night, or even knows what she’s asking for, sometimes, and she hasn’t even been able to duplicate it at home. But she keeps looking.

For the first course, I ordered steamed mussels. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had mussels before and wanted to try them. B says she thinks she’s made them for dinner, but I’m pretty sure I would have remembered eating something that looks as salacious as mussels look. I don’t remember tasting anything quite like mussels before, either. My palate isn’t as sensitive as B’s, but mussels don’t taste like any other kind of shellfish to me. “Well, do they taste like fish, then?” B asked. She thought the one I gave her tasted fishy. “Nope,” I told her, trying to pin down the flavor before I had to give up and say, “They taste like mussels.” Best I could do.

B ordered curried crab soup as her first course. I was too busy trying to figure out what the mussels tasted like and forgot to ask her for a spoonful. She said it was “very curry-ish” in a good way.

Her second course was the rainbow trout that tempted me until I saw the baked salmon just below it on the menu. I remembered to ask for a flake or two of hers, though, and loved how they served it with a dusting of crushed almonds that brought out the sweetness of the meat. Made me almost wish I’d ordered it instead of the salmon, but only almost.

The salmon was, in a word, so close to perfect as to make no difference. I’ve eaten a lot of salmon, some good, some bad, and some really, really bad. The worst I’ve ever eaten was at the West Side Club, where they baked it until it was a spongy puck that I sent back without apology. It ought to be a crime to do that to salmon, especially as it’s not hard to cook at all. Take it out of the oven just before it’s done and it’ll be flaky, still moist and ever so tender by the time it gets to the table and everyone sits down. All you’ve got to do is pay attention.

Well, the chef at The Blue Marlin must have a prodigious amount of attention to give to the food he’s preparing, because he did mine just right. My first bite melted in my mouth. I love it when salmon does that. It was served on a bed of couscous with mushrooms that went so well with the meat that I had a little with each forkful. On the side, they included a spoon full of cauliflower with caramelized onions. I’ve been anti-cauliflower since the first day I set eyes on them, but together with the candied onions they were so moorish I ate every last bit of them.

Each of my courses was paired with a red wine. They paired the salmon with a malbec from Argentina that was so smooth and smoky it broke my heart, because I have the feeling I’m never going to find it at any liquor store anywhere in town no matter how long I look or who I ask.

Our waiter, not incidentally, earned two more gold stars for The Blue Marlin. No, wait, not two – four. He didn’t snatch our plates away before we were done with them. That actually happened to me earlier this week. He asked if we were “still enjoying our dinners” instead of “still workin’ on that?” Maybe it seems as if we’re a little too fixated on that, but being asked whether or not you’re enjoying your meal, instead of implying that you’re slaving over it, really does make a huge difference. I do enough work at the office. I don’t want to go out to a nice restaurant with My Darling B and have to work there, too.

He earned a third gold star when he asked if we’d like any coffee with our dessert. I had a chocolate brownie. My Darling B had key lime pie. And then he let us linger over our dessert and coffee for as long as we wanted.

It’s a very special place, The Blue Marlin. Even if it doesn’t become our Friday the Thirteenth place, we know we’ll go back.

blue | 2:07 pm CDT
Category: festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , ,
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