In May 2009, the website Chowhound put the Marliave on “restaurant death watch.” You could almost hear the life support machine blipping and see crows gathering as a contributor to the site gloomily recounted a Thursday night he spent at the Downtown Crossing restaurant and bar. There were few patrons, he wrote, and service was spotty.
Commenters were quick to parrot the description. In that particular post there was little love for chef Scott Herritt’s reboot of the historic 1875 restaurant. It didn’t help that the Marliave had the misfortune of opening in 2008 as the stock market displayed the stability of a Jenga tower and graphs charting 401(k) plans dropped as dramatically as Caribbean waterfalls.
But to mangle the overused words of Mark Twain: Reports of the Marliave’s impending death were greatly exaggerated.
Fast-forward to a recent Wednesday night and the warmly lit downstairs bar was packed, as was most of the more-formal upstairs dining room. Marliave slowly unhooked from its life support system over the past seven years to evolve into a hybrid of casual and fine dining, with a single menu that caters to both the bar crowd and those more buttoned-down, white tablecloth-loving diners upstairs. This saves me from having to use an “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey” analogy.
When Marliave opened, Herritt (also behind Grotto and Kitchen) attempted a high-concept experience in the main dining room and an ambitious bar menu downstairs. You can credit an uptick in the economy, or the sluggish transformation of Downtown Crossing from “that place with a crater in the ground near the Opera House” to “that place with a Primark near the Opera House,” with Marliave’s survival. But I think most of that credit goes to Herritt’s menu. He wasn’t too proud to put the initial concept in a composting pile when it floundered.
In 2016, the single upstairs/downstairs Marliave menu has been fine-tuned into something best called continental. It’s French, it’s Italian, and look over there! It’s a Reuben tossed in for good measure! You have to applaud an establishment with the pluck to place both meatball sliders and escargots on the same page.
The challenge for the Marliave is providing a proper balance for both the upstairs and downstairs experience. Too frou-frou means the bar crowd runs down the street to Silvertone Bar & Grill. Too banal, and the upstairs empties out.
The Marliave faces the challenge gallantly with an elegant macaroni and cheese starter — yes, I just called mac and cheese elegant — finely constructed with homemade ziti, cream, farmhouse cheeses, and a secret weapon of black truffle. I ordered it for the table with a plan to keep it all to myself. The plan failed when my companions dug their forks in deep and never relented.
The escargots, which came out of the oven just the right degree of scalding hot, were convincingly French. I’m talking Catherine Deneuve dinner party French. They were garlicky enough to ward off indiscreet kissing for the rest of the night, and were rounded out with cognac and Parmesan. Lots of Parmesan.
Someone at my table commented that the chef had a heavy hand with cheese and salt. I suppressed the urge to smack this individual with a glove or begin a Julia Sugarbaker soliloquy explaining that we were eating in a French restaurant, not Panera. Cheese and butter are our friends — friends we don’t get to spend nearly enough time with these days.
Ordinarily delicate appetizers, such as beef carpaccio, are robust here. The thinly sliced rib eye was amped up with wide pinches of sea salt and liberal amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Herritt’s love of cheese backfires on roasted beets, which were positioned between thick layers of goat cheese. Visually it was quite lovely, but the copious amount of cheese, paired with the already thickly sliced beets, made cleaning the plate feel more like a burden than a treat.
You may have gathered by now that the Marliave does not specialize in light fare. You can enjoy the mixed greens for $10, but if you’re here, it seems more appropriate to spend that amount on the French onion soup, called Henry’s soup, a nod to patriarch Henry Marliave.
If you’re looking for light, scan the cocktail menu instead. Order the Bone Crusher, which, contrary to its name, is a delicate breeze of Bombay Sapphire, St. Germain, yellow chartreuse, and prosecco.
The surroundings at the Marliave echo the mostly classic menu. It’s been the Marliave in one form or another for just a whisker more than 140 years. The decor is vaguely historic, but not in a way that’s tarted up like some elderly Moulin Rouge dancer who brings up her former occupation in every conversation. Before the restaurant reopened in 2008, the brackish paneling and drop ceiling were removed, bringing the space back to an era that looks like the 1920s, complete with black and white tile floors that are cracked in all the right places.
In this environment you would expect to find a perfect plate of beef Wellington, because Wellington sounds like the name of a butler who would have worked on Beacon Hill in 1875. The Wellington at the Marliave dazzled with medium-rare tenderloin (a big emphasis on tender) and buttery pastry crust.
There was showmanship in Herritt’s presentation, and not just in how the food was prepared. Entrees arrived topped with a silver cloche that always elicited “Ohhhs” from the table. It’s as if our hypothetical 1875 butler Wellington were presenting these domed delicacies as he would have in his halcyon days, lifting the covers with a flourish to optimize the drama.
Even the burger got a silver plate cover. But it was overcooked, and the fries were soggy. The steak itself needed to be perfect at a French — sorry, continental — restaurant, and it came very close, but was still outshone by Wellington. The dish, not the imaginary butler.
I’ve been a patron of the Marliave for years, and was always disappointed by the ravioli, yet for some reason kept reordering it. I did it again and was finally pleased by the decision. The sauce was no longer watery, and instead of just a few elephantine slabs of pasta on the plate, there were now smaller ravioli, which helped the ricotta remain slightly fluffier.
Rabbit was moist and easily pulled away from the bone. It was particularly hearty served with a solid cake of gorgonzola and caramelized onion polenta. Heartier still was a very thick Berkshire pork chop brined in cider. The meat maintained the proper hint of pink inside, while the exterior showed the branding and texture of well-timed searing.
After a meal this ample, a logical reaction to dessert would be “No thank you, merci.” But listen to me carefully, friends: If you pass up Herritt’s butterscotch pudding with candied ginger, you will be denying yourself one of Boston’s greatest pleasures. Am I muttering hyperbole? Perhaps. But before dinner, one of my table companions asked if we could have a meal with three courses of butterscotch pudding.
The pudding is rich, the whipped cream dense, and the candied ginger resting on top a welcome, kicky contrast.
Come here often enough and you’ll need a pudding 12-step group. Sit at the bar regularly and the kindly bartender will show you the proper way to serve prosecco and St. Germain (hint, rinse the champagne flute with grapefruit juice first). Stay too late and you may have the misfortune of seeing an unwelcome varmint, and I’m not talking about a creepy guy at the bar. (The problem, says Herritt, was due to a burst pipe during the last cold spell, and has now been resolved.)
All of these elements add to the character of the place. As Downtown Crossing increasingly coalesces as a neighborhood, it needs restaurants like the Marliave — solid, dependable, and blessed with good butterscotch pudding.
10 Bosworth St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-422-0004, www.marliave.com. All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $10-$18. Entrees $15-$38. Dessert $6-$8.
Hours Daily 11-1 a.m.
Noise level Lively in the bar, romantically comfortable in the dining room.
What to order: Beef carpaccio, escargots, beef Wellington, rabbit, Berkshire pork chop, butterscotch pudding.