In his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain pulled back the curtain on plenty of restaurant truths. (Memorably: don’t order fish on Monday.)
But what stopped many home cooks in their tracks was Bourdain’s answer to why restaurant food always tastes better. In a word: butter. “I don’t care what they tell you they’re putting or not putting in your food at your favorite restaurant, chances are, you’re eating a ton of butter. In a professional kitchen, it’s almost always the first and last thing in the pan.”
Bourdain, of course, was cooking in the classical French tradition, in which everything comes in a sauce and every sauce is mounted with butter. The polar opposite of that is, well—Marin. At Marin, there is no butter on the line at all. None.
Named for the bucolic county just across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Marin (pronounced Muh-RIN) evokes the birthplace and stronghold of California cuisine. The restaurant inhabits the space in downtown Minneapolis’s Le Meridien Chambers hotel, occupied rather briefly by D’Amico Kitchen and before that by Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Chambers Kitchen. The menu is health-conscious, sourcing-conscious, and veggie-heavy, but otherwise hews closely to the classic lines of fine dining, which means a nice piece of protein, albeit smaller and leaner, is still at the center of the plate.
But, like an Olympic high-diver who adds an extra twist or tuck, Marin gets a pretty high degree of difficulty multiplier: that crispy chicken skin, that caramel-colored crust on the salmon, that rich broth on the rice—all created with minimal fat, salt, and white starches. And the calorie count for every dish is printed right there on the menu to prove it.
The restaurant’s executive chef and partner, Mike Rakun, started testing his calorie-conscious concept at the always-hopping Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park two years ago. And while a small portion of Mill Valley’s success can be attributed to the fact that it’s the finest dining in that ’burb by far, it has also proved that enough diners really do enjoy tucking into their just right–sized portions of lean protein and knowing that dinner comes in at around 500 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrates.
There are some differences, of course, between the two restaurants. Mill Valley has a clubby vibe—it wouldn’t be out of place on a nice golf course—while Marin is right off the lobby of what’s arguably the swankest hotel in the state—one with an international reputation to uphold.
Rakun realized that these downtown diners would expect an impressive experience and impeccable service. So he expanded the wine list and refined the dessert offerings. The clientele, in turn, is revealing different tastes. Marin is selling a ton of raw fish, says Rakun, who calls the raw bar “a smashing hit.” Whatever seasonal crudo is on offer, get it—especially if it’s ultrathin slices of marlin spiked with yuzu.
A few Mill Valley Kitchen dishes came downtown, including the bison burger (it’s only on the lunch menu at Marin). Even if you’re not calorie counting, you’ll find this astonishing: 360 calories, including a dressed salad. Of course, it’s not a dripping, two-fister hunk of 80-percent-lean top round, oozing cheese inside and out. But it has bison’s satisfying meaty flavor and leaves you with the amazing revelation that you can eat a burger for lunch and not need a nap.
Revelations like that are universal across the entrée menu. The juicy chicken quarter comes on a bed of vinegary stewed kale—using acid for flavor is a recurring theme—and tender baby potatoes. It’s hearty—positively filling—and clean-tasting at the same time. And, it’s only 430 calories. (Yes, it’s strange and disconcerting at first to discuss calories over a nice dinner. Rakun swears that he and his team just created the best dishes they could before submitting the dishes for analysis. “There was no particular number we were aiming for,” he says.)
The seared tuna is an excellent example of the pure, balanced flavors Rakun says he strives to create. In a single bite, you can get mild-flavored tuna with a quickly cooked snap pea, some ginger-spiked lentils, a dab of kimchi, and a swirl of basil sauce. It sounds like a mess, but it works: sweet, hot, and meaty all at once.
Other clear winners included a deceptively simple seared salmon fillet with ultra-vinegary enoki mushrooms, a fillet of beef from Grass Run Farms topped with silky caramelized onions, and luxuriously smooth sweet-pea ravioli. (This is where you’ll find just a “skosh” of butter, Rakun says.)
The beauty of a lighter entrée is that it’s easy to save room for dessert. At Marin, it’s astonishingly good. Rather than skimp on richness, the portions are charmingly petite—a couple of cute little chocolate-dipped ice-cream sandwiches, a sharable plate of mini Mint Milano, Fig Newton, and Oreo knockoffs.
As a hotel restaurant, Marin also has to serve breakfast, multiplying the degree of difficulty yet again. How do you put the expected eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles on the table without retreating on every principle of healthy eating you’ve established at dinner? Answer: pack the plates with greens, and substitute a silky sweet-corn sauce for the hollandaise and quinoa flour for wheat. Both are excellent.
There were, to extend our diving metaphor, a couple of belly flops on the menu. Notably, the bánh mì. Around here, where an abundance of Vietnamese sandwich shops have taught us what to expect from a good bánh mì, this shouldn’t happen. The bread should be airy and crisp, not dense and floury, as it was at Marin. And although we were warned the sandwich had “a little heat,” it had none. The mushroom pâté was bland, and the vegetable terrine was slimy and unpleasant.
But that bobble doesn’t take the whole menu out of contention for a medal. Once diners discover Marin (many tables were empty on all three of our visits, including those on the lovely redecorated patio), it will surely find itself on more and more expense reports—and not only for the menu.
The Chambers restaurant is now a far more welcoming place (especially the library-like bar downstairs). Gone are the intimidating stark-white surfaces of the previous restaurants, replaced by larger tables and heavy, cushioned chairs. The new space feels expansive and generous, with the easy, unpretentious luxury and warm, coppery colors of a Napa vineyard. It subtly lets diners know that eating healthfully doesn’t have to mean feeling deprived.
Tricia Cornell regularly writes about food and dining for Minnesota Monthly.
The Perfect Dish
Chef Mike Rakun strives for clean, balanced flavors, as in the unexpected combination of seared tuna, lightly cooked snap peas, ginger-spiked lentils, kimchi, and basil sauce. It’s sweet, hot, and meaty all at once.
Start with crudo and a juice, followed by the chicken or tuna with a side of cumin-spiced carrots. Do not skip dessert.
Keep Marin on your short list for downtown breakfast meetings.
Hours: Mon.–Thurs., 6:30 a.m.–12 a.m.; Fri.–Sat., 6:30 a.m.–1 a.m.
Prices: Starters $6–$14; entrées $14–$33
Address: 901 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-252-7000, marinrestaurant.com