At last Sunday evening’s intimate and enjoyable preview of Marché, which officially opened March 17, celebrated chef, writer, and radio personality Greg Atkinson and his wife Betsy offered a glimpse of the kind of attention to personal detail they will give to everything from food and wine to decor and atmosphere in this new, highly anticipated, charming Bainbridge Island restaurant.
Betsy and building owner Linda Brandt were hanging the restaurant’s artwork as the dozen or so invitees arrived for the event. The artwork consists of turn-of-the-century botanical drawings of vegetables taken from an oversized seed catalog the Atkinsons had in their collection. Betsy said she had no idea why they had it until now.
Co-hosting the event was chef Crescent Dragonwagon, a good friend and former writing teacher of Atkinson. Dragonwagon is in town from Vermont to promote her new cookbook Bean by Bean. Atkinson said that they had been chatting in his kitchen about how he needed to organize a preview of the restaurant, and they came up with the idea of doing “a low-key nonevent event” together.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been invited were treated to a front row seat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen where Atkinson and Dragonwagon bantered, improvised, and carefully arranged on each chunky, white plate the food they were whipping up for us. Dragonwagon made a sugar snap pea, orange, and spinach salad dressed in a mint-orange vinaigrette. The recipe came straight out of her new cookbook, and she was careful to follow it to the teaspoon. She said she doesn’t want people to taste it one way and then be disappointed when it doesn’t turn out exactly the same in their own home kitchens.
Dragonwagon, a gregarious and entertaining host, said that it was “gutsy” of Atkinson to offer “a recipe from someone else when you’re opening a restaurant and your tools are across the street,” referring to the fact that Atkinson is still in the process of moving in his cooking utensils from his nearby office.
Atkinson of course contributed to the meal as well. He made a leek and nettle soup from volunteer leeks growing in his yard and nettles that are popping up there right now as well and garnished it with fresh plum blossoms. Atkinson said, “I raised children instead of vegetables for the last 18 years,” explaining why the leeks he used were planted by a former owner of his home. He added, “I’m very good at growing trees.”
The two also served a buckwheat bliny with beluga lentils and truffle oils. Dragonwagon offered the guests a bite of rosewater cake after they ate.
When Atkinson was complimented on his choice of simple dishware, Dragonwagon quipped, “The food is comfortable, the plates are comfortable. Food doesn’t have to wear high heels and be drycleaned.”
The beverage for the evening was wine drawn right out of the tap. That’s right: Atkinson has chosen to carry sustainable wines produced in Walla Walla, wines so sustainable they don’t even come in bottles. Atkinson explained that Marché is a Northwest-meets-French restaurant, with “no California and no Italy,” so no Californian or Italian wines. But, he explained, Washington wines are expensive. Wines on tap are advantageous in that the customer doesn’t need to buy a $75 bottle but can enjoy an $8 or $10 glass of wine instead.
While pouring wine behind the small but cozy bar, Atkinson chatted comfortably with his guests. He said that the restaurant was a family affair. Betsy, a realtor with extensive restaurant experience as well, will be the house manager. Their teenage son will be sharing the dishwashing position with a good friend, giving both of them the opportunity to maintain a social life despite the work. Atkinson joked that his other son found himself a teaching job in China after being offered the dishwashing gig.
Earlier in the evening, as Betsy and Brandt measured the height of the artwork, I had examined the canning jars and cookbooks arranged on the half-wall shelf that separates the dining area from the entrance. Betsy told me that some are filled with a pineapple quince marmalade which will be used for the cheese plate. The darker-colored ones contain Danson plum jam.
The jars and books give the restaurant a homey feeling; even though the decor is upscale and, well, “French bistro,” it is comfortable. The dark-wood casework, all done by Islander Steve Trick, orangey-red patterned fabric banquettes, white table linens, and forsythia and plum blossoms in vases create intimacy and warmth in this renovated mid-century cinderblock building.
Brandt said of Atkinson, comparing him to the building, “He’s a sensible and sensitive cook and a mid-century guy.” She said she has been “stalking” Atkinson for some time and, although she was engaged in a flurry of busy-ness that evening, I could tell from her hint of a smile and fast wink that she is ultrapleased everything is falling into place and that her building now houses a restaurant run by a world-class chef.
Guest and artist Martha Makosky perfectly captured the synergy among the various elements at work in the restaurant Sunday. She said about the art on the walls that “Botanical illustration requires a high attention to detail. That’s true for this restaurant as well.” She added, “And the prints of vegetables contain the flavor of the artist, just like cooking.”
Although Marché officially opens Saturday, all the tables that night are already reserved. For those of us who didn’t plan ahead, it will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays starting at 11:30 a.m. for lunch and running through dinner. When the kitchen closes for a break between lunch and dinner, the restaurant doors will be open for beverage service and light, pre-prepared food. The restaurant is located at 150 Madrone Lane, on the alley behind Blackbird Café. See our Chef Interview with Atkinson and Greg Atkinson Making Pumpkin Soup and Slab Apple Pie Photo Gallery.
Photos by Sarah Lane and Martha Makosky.