In a Seinfeld episode entitled “The Café” that originally aired in 1991, a new restaurant, the Dream Café, run by a Pakistani man, Babu Bhatt, who serves Mexican, Italian and Chinese dishes. “He’s all over the place. That’s why no one is going in,” Jerry observes.
Marius, located at the corner of Crown and Temple streets, is plagued by the same problem — a culinary identity crisis. The Italian-born, German-raised manager/owner, who enjoys going to South America on vacation, told me in gruff Bavarian notes that his restaurant was “95 percent Italian.” One look at the menu, or one bite of the many dishes ordered, and it was clear that Marius does not focus on (regional) Italian cuisine or even Italian/South American fusion cuisine as online dining guides purport. In fact, Marius does not seem to focus on anything, including taste.
The restaurant, named for the first and second century B.C. general-turned-politician, has an interior that is undecidedly Roman. Two large, warmly lit dining rooms and a wine room make up the space. The first room is topped by pastel sponge-painted ceilings with arachnid chandeliers and backed by wide red leather half-moon sofa-encircled tables. The second room has window shutters and primary colored doors on the ceiling, interspersed with hanging baskets. Both rooms are adorned with kitschy artifacts ranging from the Roman — including a painting of a swordsman, a large entryway statue and mosaic tiling covering some of the walls — to the indescribably absurd, embodied by the bulky wavy mirrors, two massive ultraviolet-lit black stone lions and a huge Egyptian sarcophagus. The outdoor patio lined with palm-grass roof huts and tiki torches, plus the medley of new age, traditional and folk Spanish and American R&B playing in the background add all the more to the confusion.
The menu is as cacophonous as the soundtrack. The wine list is global (among 66 wines, only 14 are from Italy), by the glass for certain listings and priced from $20 to $240 a bottle. Cocktails are un-Italian with fusion variations on the martini (pear, lychee and cantaloupe), and mojitos and caipirinhas, among other Latin American-influenced offerings. Appetizers rely heavily on seafood, including a Mayan shrimp cocktail, New Zealand mussels in coconut broth, Brazilian Amazon shrimp and panko-crusted fried mozzarella. Our waiter strangely suggested we order the Maryland crab cakes, but we opted for the broccoli rabe and sausage sautéed with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, a simple, yet uninspired southern Italian-sounding dish that was oily and undersalted; the rabe was overcooked and exceedingly soft.
Next came the Peruvian fish chowder, a bland steamy tomato-based stew of squid, octopus, mussels, clams, cilantro and black beans. The octopus and squid were gummy, the mussels were mealy and fishy, and the potatoes and carrots were undercooked.
Salads seem to lean toward new American, with offerings like grilled romaine salad drizzled with Caesar dressing, and the standard, unoriginal mesclun salad with apples, cranberries, Gorgonzola and honey balsamic dressing. We tried the tomato and mozzarella panzanella salad, one of the few Italian-sounding options, which was fresh and nicely seasoned with a basil vinaigrette, but overwhelmed by the addition of celery.
The entrée list was similarly miscellaneous, ranging from Italian standards like osso bucco, gnocchi alla romano, veal marsala and chicken parmigiana to a “cowboy steak.” We avoided its seafood section, hoping that roasted chicken with asparagus and sun-dried tomatoes topped with pignoli nuts in a light cream sauce over tagliatelle would bring needed culinary relief, given its traditional-sounding preparation. The chicken was wet and mushy, the untoasted pine nuts were waxy, and the sun-dried tomatoes provided nothing redeeming, except perhaps to provide visual excitement amid the gloppy mess of cream sauce that coated the whole thing. The portion was large, but neither of us finished. This was the worst pasta dish I have ever eaten in an American restaurant. In the words of Courtney Fukuda ’12: “I would rather be eating Kraft Mac & Cheese.”
The baked plantain with vanilla ice cream for dessert was original but also cloying. The thick stripes of honey layering the plantain boat could not save the starchiness of the overly unripe fruit.
Prices — with appetizers from $8 to $15, salads from $7 to $12, and entrees from $12 to $45 — were unreasonable given the food’s low quality.
With weaknesses in both Latin American and Italian cuisines, Marius has no culinary base upon which to develop its fusion. By the end of the meal, I was not surprised that only one of its other tables was filled. When the whirlwind tour of culinary disaster was finally over, I left mystified, asking myself: Where is its inspiration? Its purpose? Its dignity?