Everything about the John Marshall’s Kitchen Martini and Bubble Bar screams cool. The décor, the menu, the lipsticked “kisses” on the wall, bubble blowers on the tables and, of course, the cocktails. Martinis and champagne cocktails with names like Absolutely Fabulous, No Tan Lines and Chocolate Choo Choo are in abundance. There are more than 50 with prices from $6.50 to $9.50. The Bubble Bar also has an upscale Little Plates menu boasting Chef Matthew Richards’ New Virginia cuisine, like Escargots and Shitake Mushrooms ($9) or a Smoked Salmon Cocktail with Horseradish/Cracked Pepper Cream Cheese ($10).
Dinner can be taken either in the bar or in an adjacent dining area and reflects a few seasonal game meats (venison chops, $26), chicken and seafood (jumbo lump crab cakes, $28). Vegetarian dishes are prepared upon request.
The John Marshall’s ambience — live band, high-end cocktail and dinner menu — is right on target. But does the John Marshall live up to its own creation?
The answer is sometimes. Service can be slow. Food may arrive before drinks. Food may arrive before silverware. Food may arrive with only knives as your utensils. Food may be lukewarm. Food may be described one way on the menu, yet arrive as something different. And you may want to brush up on your wine-opening skills, because you might have to show the server how to open a bottle with a wine key.
The Bubble Bar’s style of cuisine can best be described as brave combinations applied to classic dishes. A Kosher Frankfurter ($6) is served in a puff pastry while a Beef Tenderloin ($30) comes with a Rosemary Beurre Rouge. There are bold moves being made here, which is admirable. But when a Crispy Yellowfin Tuna appetizer is described as served in a “Brandied Peppercorn Light Potato Crust with Red Radish” ($12), yet arrives sans peppercorns and radish, or a Charred Jumbo Shrimp and Sausage ($11) is served over a “Seasoned Avocado Salad,” but is served atop a heavily mayonnaised pile of match-sticked zucchini without explanation, such audacious culinary attempts are lost in a cloud of inconsistency and disorganization. When a Cherries Jubilee dessert is touted as a house special, but later morphs into cooked blackberries with whipped cream — even when it’s comped — diners take note.
Menu items such as a Hasenpfeffer (braised rabbit stew with ham dumplings) for $22 are a rare find, but when the rabbit is tough and the sauce too heavily creamed, even the rhotekraute (a purple sauerkraut), with its delicious, tangy crunch, doesn’t save it. Gutsy combinations such as a sautéed sliced lamb paired with scallops ($22, nightly special) are noteworthy, but miss the mark when the scallops assume the lamb’s gaminess in part because of an excessively fatty cut of meat.
But there are hits here. The black-eyed pea salad is a delightful, piquant combination of peas, corn and peppers and makes an excellent accompaniment to a plateful of deep-fried Crawfish Hushpups ($10) which are intoxicatingly tasty and way too good for my dog. There’s also a Nightly Fondue ($10), which is served tableside with grilled ciabatta bread, and is enough to feed a sofaful of people. It’s retro and super fun to eat while watching the band. But be careful on live music nights. There is a $5 cover charge for each person sitting at your table automatically added to your total check. A single, elusive notecard placed on each table states that the fee will be added to your “check” and consequently reads as a per-table charge.
Yet these issues can be remedied. With more staff training (especially on the menus), and better consistency and communication exhibited between the kitchen and the front of the house, diners could enjoy a more positive overall dining experience. It is evident that careful thought and preparation have gone into creating an establishment that beckons the Vegas schtick in all of us, but that swanky feeling needs to be sustained well beyond its décor and atmosphere. S
Kendra Bailey Morris is a professionally trained chef who teaches cooking classes for Sur La Table Cooking School and works as a freelance chef. She received a master’s degree in creative writing and is author of the cookbook “Family Secrets.” She visits each restaurant twice and each unannounced visit is paid for by Style.
John Marshall’s Martini Kitchen and Bubble Bar ($$$) 101 N. Fifth Street, in the Hotel John Marshall 783-1840 Lunch: Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Bar open late
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