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By Renee Batti
Some people who enjoy attending concerts and listening to recorded music avoid restaurants that feature live music. That's usually because they also enjoy good conversation with friends and family, and too often, the volume of the music precludes conversation.
Having dinner at Marqs in Menlo one recent evening, it occurred to me early on that, at last, I might have found the perfect venue for listening to inspired music -- not background music, or blaring sound, but music worth listening to -- while still being able to talk with others I'm sharing a table with.
But music and conversation go only so far when you're hungry and craving well-prepared food. So, how does Marqs score on that chart? Impressively well -- in some instances, deserving of the highest marks.
Owner Mark Adams, teaming up with executive chef Gary Maffia, opened the bar and grille in late February in the renovated space that formerly housed Siam Thai restaurant, at 1143 Crane St. in Menlo Park. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday, Marqs features the rare treat of live music every night. (On Monday nights, Marqs has a singing competition, with the winner awarded a gig at the restaurant; food is also available Mondays.)
Mr. Maffia made his name on the local food scene long ago as owner/chef of Barbarossa. At the helm in Marqs' kitchen, he's likely to gain a new generation of fans.
Marqs is subtly divided into a small dining area near the front of the restaurant, where a full menu is offered, and a bar area that includes small tables and a piano. Because there's no wall dividing the two sections, the music can be heard just fine from the dining area.
My friend and I were grateful for that when we ate there on a late spring evening, and the fabulous Nancy Gilliland was singing, accompanying herself on the piano.
That night, we started with a lovely ahi tuna carpaccio ($12). The thinly sliced tuna served as the bed for organic mixed greens, which were topped with sliced avocado. Thin red onion, capers and a drizzle of truffle oil topped off the appetizer, which was a promising way to start the meal.
We split the candied prawn salad ($14), which also came with organic greens -- and also was delicious. The salad, which they divided for us in the kitchen, included cherry tomatoes, mandarin oranges, and pecans, and was finished with a honey-mustard vinaigrette.
For the entree, I had the Muscovy duck breast ($18), which was thinly sliced and served with a port cherry reduction. It was good, but the meat lacked salt and could have used a bit more of the rich and flavorful sauce. The spinach and fingerling potatoes were delicious accompaniments.
My friend ordered filet mignon and foie gras ($34) from the special menu that night -- an outstanding dish that featured Black Angus beef. It was served with mashed potatoes and asparagus.
Although the portions were substantial, we managed to make room for one of the best bread puddings I've ever had ($9), served with fresh fruit and caramel sauce.
The following week, we went back to Marqs to order off the bar menu and hear more music. The bar menu is an extended version of the appetizer list for the full dinner menu.
Both the wild prawns with bordelaise sauce ($14) and the lobster spring rolls with plum sauce ($12) were terrific -- the prawns and sauce fresh and flavorful, and the spring rolls fat with lobster bits. The plum sauce was light and delicate, infused with a tea-like flavor.
The lavender creme brulee ($9) also was a winner, one that had us licking our spoons and wanting more. The floral element didn't overwhelm the whole, striking a fine balance that I found to be present in just about every dish I tasted at Marqs.
The only criticism I have is that the red wines are served too warm. We had to ask for an ice bucket (promptly provided by our waiter) to cool down our bottle of Martella petite sirah, and we accidentally left it in the bucket too long. The wine we drank by the glass in the bar was also too warm.
The late Richard Olney wrote that "the myth that all red wines should be served at 'room temperature' has ruined more great wines than any other single mistreatment." The temperature in a room is often too warm to make the "myth" credible, and Mr. Olney insisted that even red wines be served in the 55-degree ballpark. The owner would do well to invest in climate-controlled storage.
When we sat down at one of the tall bar tables on our return trip last week, we nervously noticed that the featured singer and her accompanist weren't at the piano, even though it was well after the 6 p.m. start time. We asked the owner, Mr. Adams, where she was, and he replied that she would be performing soon.
About an hour later, he returned, looking embarrassed, and said he hadn't heard from her. He suspected she would be a no-show, and said such a thing had never happened before. Apologizing, he offered us a free glass of wine apiece the next time we stopped by to hear music. We would rather have heard the music, but were impressed by Mr. Adams' gesture.
The former bar manager at the Oak City Bar & Grill in Menlo Park, Mr. Adams is impressive in a number of ways. Friendly and energetic, he injects the atmosphere at Marqs with a sense of joie de vivre that adds to an already warm and comfortable environment.
It's a harmonious environment (especially when the musicians show up) that, along with the food, makes dining there an experience worth returning for.
Marqs in Menlo, 1143 Crane St. in Menlo Park, is open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays. On Monday nights, there's a singing competition; food is also available that night. For information and reservations, call 853-1143, or go to marqsinmenlo.com.