An elegant charm with a decidedly French flourish breezes through Marion, a new Miami café and oyster bar where the golden glow of candlelight and copper pots lights up a back stretch of Brickell.
A long, beautiful seafood case runs like a display of jewels on ice at the rear of the restaurant, with an open, white-tile kitchen bustling behind it and seating in front at a low bar. White crochet curtains and sturdy wicker seating around solid wood tables overlook the street and a narrow outdoor dining patio.
Serving carts bearing proper cheese trays, whole rotisserie chickens and desserts are wheeled by waiters around stone columns as Édith Piaf, Dusty Springfield and other chanteuses chirp overhead. It’s the kind of place where you could curl up on a rainy day with a creamy coffee and a handmade baguette and feel transported to Europe.
Lunch and dinner begin with complimentary sliced crusty hearth bread delivered warm to the table with butter. Save some to sop up the delicate tomato vinaigrette that flavors one of Marion’s best attributes, an appetizer dubbed 25 Tomatoes that tosses a sparkling mix of heirlooms with creamy, light burrata and basil.
Starters come predominantly from the sea, with a raw bar featuring oysters, shrimp, lobster, clams and mussels, as well as tuna-belly ribbons and sea-bream crudo.
A nod to Spain with a Galician-style octopus starter has been tweaked to perfection. The version we were served — a warm and lightly charred plump tentacle resting on a smoky white-bean purée with tart roasted red peppers, crunchy Marcona almonds and fresh thyme — has evolved from the chorizo-and-potato dish still listed on the menu. It’s an update that should win widespread approval.
Chef Jean Paul Lourdes, originally from New Zealand, reportedly pursued a degree in biochemistry and worked in France’s perfume industry before he started working in Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong for three-star Michelin chefs. We believe it after tasting the layers of flavor and light touch of both the tomato salad and octopus.
We mourned the removal of watermelon gazpacho from the menu, but a new hearty kale salad with shaved pecorino and small croutons cheered us up. As a “table snack,” a traditional Provençal pissaladière of comforting caramelized onions and anchovies was marred only by a too-thin, cracker-like bread crust underneath.
Whole fish of the day is brought to the table raw for inspection, with sharing encouraged among three to four people. Individual fillets are small but worth every bite. The striped bass we tried on a lunch visit was grilled over a wood fire, leaving it with a crusty exterior and a moist, buttery interior. It came with a salad of greens, avocado chunks and a creamy tarragon dressing, the leaves peppered with dried, delicately spicy Espelette pepper.
A daily paella for sharing among two to three people, however, was a huge disappointment as a dinner entree. The single Maine lobster split open on top of the dish lacked any seasoning or butter, and the plain, tomato-flavored rice underneath was devoid of peppers, peas or any other ingredient. The exorbitant price and the lack of effort left a bad taste in our mouth.
The minimalist bucatini cacio e pepe, or cheese and pepper pasta, did not impress the vegetarian in our crowd. Neither did the precious vegetable tarte, a cute and tidy pastry wrapped around a stack of slivered turnips, carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes that were slightly undercooked.
From the land portion of the menu — which includes lamb belly, rib-eye for sharing and a honeyed pork chop — a strip loin tried to borrow flavor from smoky grilled onions and rosemary butter, but came up short, lacking juice and tenderness.
Do stop the dessert cart when it trolls by. Among our favorites: the trinitario, a half-sphere of shiny, dark chocolate stuffed with layers of sweet passion fruit filling and thin cake. Dried passion fruit crumbs and gold leaf designs tart up the outside, providing a fun contrast.
Wait staff is friendly and somewhat knowledgeable, but not to the pedigree demanded by the menu’s high prices. French owners Mathieu Massa and Michael Ridard (Bâoli Miami) have created a gorgeous setting. Along with El Tucán, a Cuban-style cabaret they own next door to Marion, this could be an entertaining slice of Brickell.
If Marion’s menu continues to be tweaked, it may be worth fighting traffic to reach it again and again.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Jodi Mailander: @JodiMailander