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Analyze This at The Marrow

A champion chef puts his heritage on the line

Analyze This at The Marrow
Mark Hewko

Harold Dieterle, champion of Top Chef's first season, is the rare veteran of the program who's fulfilled the promise of his victory—not as pop-up impresario, personal-appearance warhorse, or talk-show sidekick, but as a restaurant-empire builder. Even before Gabe Stulman dreamed up Little Wisco, Dieterle realized the neighborhood potential of the West Village for the sort of chain he wanted to create. With his business partner, Alicia Nosenzo, he plotted to exploit it via a series of small, well-run places that would allow him to develop not only as a restaurateur but as a hands-on chef.

First there was Perilla (2007), a bistro with an affection for global flourishes—a little pickled kumquat here, a little coconut there—that made the menu both cautious and mildly innovative. Kin Shop (2010) was second, a real dice-roll on the part of Dieterle to see if he could offer an unconventional version of Thai on a stretch of Sixth Avenue known for its conservative dining choices, complete with formidable dishes he'd invented himself successfully masquerading as Siamese. And then the Marrow appeared at the end of December like a late Christmas present, a restaurant that offers a combination of Italian and Germanic fare, as in the cooking of northern Italy's Alto Adige, the Alpine region on the Austrian border.

But Dieterle's assembly of these elements is as much a product of the chef's genome as of his knowledge of gastronomic geography. Inspired by the heritage of his German father and Italian mother, he puts together a menu that might be seen as culinary catharsis through public self-psychoanalysis. The restaurant occupies an L-shaped corner storefront at Bank and Greenwich streets, far enough south of MePa to be free of noise and mayhem. The space runs from a bar topped with spectacular Carrera marble—a perfect perch for solitary diners—through a cluster of circular red banquettes that recall the spinning-teacup rides of county fairs, and on to an area of rectangular tables with views of a modern kitchen. A wild brocade wallpaper might remind you of a Rorschach test.

Boning up at the Marrow, with sea urchin and Meyer-lemon aioli
Mark Hewko
Boning up at the Marrow, with sea urchin and Meyer-lemon aioli

The menu is symmetrical—in fact, it's a perfect grid. Four horizontal divisions (Meat Plates, Starters, Mains, and Sides) are further marshaled into two columns, one headed "Famiglia Chiarelli" (his mother), the other "Familie Dieterle" (his father), with 14 dishes per parent.

Let's make a comparison. From Dad's side comes a magnificent duck schnitzel ($29), brown as a bun just out of the oven and richly textured, reminding us that duck meatballs were a signature of Dieterle's on Top Chef. It comes with a cucumber-potato salad, quark-cheese spaetzle toasted to crunchiness, and stewed wolfberries—German sounding, but really just the currently faddish Chinese gojis. Mom steps forward with a perfect marrow bone ($16) sluiced with sea urchin and Meyer-lemon aioli. Feathery baby celery leaves decorate the top like a forest canopy shading a brook of liquid fat.

Now, Dad counters with a potage that might be a riff on matzo-ball soup, featuring tiny pretzel dumplings bobbing in a dark and stormy broth accentuated with kale, mushrooms, and marjoram. Mom replies with a braised beef braciola, a classic southern Italian dish often seen at New York street fairs. This hearty brisket roulade stuffed with pecorino lounges in a thick tomato sauce skirted with polenta—though not as much as you might like. Mom also wows with her salt-cod gnudi (pronounced "nudie," basically naked ravioli) and grilled romaine lettuce, which is something like a warm Caesar salad. Dad, who seems obsessed with duck, deserves his due for a braised cube of it with potato-chip-crisp skin, served with watermelon radish and huckleberry jus.

But everything is not hunky-dory in the family kitchen. Fumbles include a stone bass tonnato, the fish subbing for the usual veal in a tuna sauce that isn't assertive enough (Mom, $30), and potatoes fried in aged-beef tallow (Dad, $10). It once worked for McDonald's, but doesn't work here. Overall, though, the food is excellent, and represents a leap forward for Dieterle as a chef, who is cooking more assertively in this venue than ever before. But who wins the battle? I'd have to say Mom, but maybe because Italian cooking is inherently more interesting. Or maybe Dieterle has more enthusiasm for the mother-identified dishes? Holy Oedipus!

Harmonizing the culinary stances of Ma and Pa is the pastry chef. Her most impressive production is a delicious ginger stout cake ($10), proffered with a poached pear and honey ice cream, mixing dark and light flavors. Given that her name is Ginger Fisher, could it be that she's conducting her own self-analysis, too?

 
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