Bright colors and wavy booths, salt shakers that look like squeezy baby toys and a mirror ball helped the atmosphere attain something that had never been attempted in Bend. The food was lauded as wonderfully different, a great value and served up from a down-to-earth, fashion-minded staff.
Those three couples have long gone on to other adventures, but under owner Matt Davis, Marz Bistro is still as popular as ever.
During the 10-plus years Marz has been in business, it has undergone a few minor transformations - the biggest being that Marz now has its own liquor license and bar. The Astro Lounge, no longer affiliated with Marz, used to be somewhat of a Marz annex - a place to wait for a coveted table next door where you could get a drink with a little more kick than beer or wine. Now the bar looking into the minuscule Marz kitchen pumps out mixed drinks and house favorites.
Some of my all-time favorite dishes at Marz are the famed "bowls" - a number of signature dishes based on broth. They have increased in size and variety, including a nightly special bowl. Recently, chefs Jeff Hunt and Rich Hall featured a special bowl of steaming chili-soy broth with rice noodles, clams, pork belly and scallions that was truly tasty and packed full of complementing textures. The red curry bouillabaisse is a tremendous combo of clams, shrimp, daily fish, potatoes and green beans bathed in a rosy coconut based curry sauce. Flavorful and rich, this dish has a kick best kept manageable by a slightly fruity white wine or one of the locally brewed beers on tap.
The appetizer selection has also expanded over the years, probably as the trend for "small plates" has taken hold. As always, the Asian baby back ribs are sublime, glazed with slightly sweet soy-based sauce and served over the famous garlic mashers. The seared ahi, a relatively new addition (at least compared to the ribs that made their appearance the day the establishment opened), is a delicate dish of almost raw ahi with a sweet rub of coriander and brown sugar. Toothsome slices are paired with a sunomono-type cucumber salad, a crispy rice stick and creamy wasabi - again equally emphasizing textures and flavor.
On a recent visit, my dining partners and I tried the arepas - white corn fritters made with mozzarella and served with guajillo chili tomato gazpacho (kind of a gourmet's answer to fried cheese sticks) - and the steak-wrapped shrimp appetizers. Served rolled and sliced, resembling make sushi, these were so divine and the sauce was so intriguing that my respectable, well-mannered dining partner commenced to lick the plate.
Entrees include old favorites like the churrasco steak and the Marz vegetable plate - which, by the way, sounds boring but is anything but. The rice-noodle-wrapped fish is one of the many preparations for fresh seafood and is a wonderful blend of firm but pliable fish paired with the snappy crunch of a flash-fried layer of bean thread noodles. Another surprisingly tasty dish is the chicken korma. This traditional Indian dish is made with a bevy of spices and coconut cream or yogurt and can be very heavy - even gummy feeling - often with overcooked vegetables and mounds of rich sauce. Not at Marz. The dish is, again, a delight of textures and graceful flavors.
As always, the service was efficient and comfortable - Marz has always been the kind of place where you feel like your cool, knowledgeable friend is waiting on you. It's a conscious move away from the snobby up-sell, the despondent vocation burnout or the "huh?" kind of restaurant service that is unfortunately common in an industry that has stress levels second only to those of air traffic controllers.
The hour wait for a table is evidence that Marz still has it - trendiness (so important in the fickle eatery biz), great food, good prices and a staff that seems to have as much fun as their clientele. No need to throw your own party, it's already in happening at Marz.
email@example.comMarz Bistro - $$
163 NW Minnesota Ave., 389-2025. 5 pm to close every day