If you were expecting John Adams, who raised the bar on local eats at Bluebeard and Plow & Anchor, to make a splash with his first solo effort, you might be surprised at how Marrow (1106 Prospect St., 317-986-6752) hardly makes you look. Signage is subtle, just a small square with the restaurant’s logo of open hands. You are more likely to find the place more by the flashing neon of nearby shops and bars at the heart of Fountain Square. Step inside, however, and you’ll notice a color palate rare in an era of brick and weathered wood. A wall of pallet boards painted in the reds, blues, and yellows of a Thai market gives way to warm banquettes dressed in fabrics of somewhat earthier shades—stripes and solids as varied as a whole continent of flags. High windows atop the kitchen reveal stacks of spices and dangling pans. A rack in the hallway to the bathroom is hung with the staff’s coats and jackets.
There’s some reclaimed barn wood, for sure, though subdued under a glass tabletop, and just enough metal to make the place modern. And while custom, handcrafted benches near the front are stylish perches for customers waiting for a seat, the bulk of the furniture is from a former Scotty’s Brewhouse in Columbus, tables and chairs that Adams and his crew opted to leave in subtly scratched-up condition. A swatch of carpet and plenty of sound-dampening tile help to temper the customer chatter, and a soundtrack that weaves in vintage world funk makes for an especially soothing experience. All of this conspires to make the place feel more like it’s been serving up globally inflected soul food to the locals for years, not that it opened two weeks ago.
Equally understated is Adams’ streamlined menu, which eschews the cheekier descriptions he might have used in his H2O Sushi days for dishes that could populate a Southern picnic table: catfish, ribs, turnip greens, boiled peanuts. The play is in the execution, and Adams takes these staples to places as far-flung as Jamaica or Seoul, stretching the notion of fusion to the point where the American inspiration transforms into another country’s native flavors. Deviled eggs may be filled with pimento cheese and crab, but they get a generous garnish of flying fish roe, as well as thin slices of red chiles. making them decidedly Asian. They’re a solid foil for the bar’s innovative and stylish drinks: the bracingly sweet Rorschach Sour that mingles rum with raspberry, egg, and squid ink under a heady froth of whipped egg white, or an earthy milk punch with sweet corn milk, five spice, rye, and rum.
A simple Asian pear salad gets plenty of kick from a kimchi vinaigrette and some nice funk from fermented bean curd, though the romaine and arugula get wilted in somewhat unequal measure. Generously stuffed house-made wontons come filled with braised pork neck and eel, with a scallion butter and eel sauce to echo the flavor inside. They’re definitely a dish to win over your more squeamish dinner companions. And while “Mac & Paneer” may stray so far from the blue box you can hardly recognize it as the dish you grew up loving, this is one of the more flavorful Indian dishes in the city, with a rich curry butter sauce, hunks of fresh cheese, and a wealth of tasty veggies.
Among main dishes, which come in small or large sizes meant for sharing, a nearly perfect fried catfish is light and greaseless with a crunchy cornmeal coating and a classic Thai treatment of ginger, lemongrass, and fish sauce. A side of Manchurian cauliflower is a candidate for one of the most interesting vegetable sides in town, with lightly browned cauliflower tossed in an Indian ketchup, plenty of garlic, a masala spice blend, and white and blue sesame seeds that match the walls. It’s the kind of food you could have expected if you had followed Adams from restaurant to restaurant—and yet the kind of flavor-forward, soulful food he was only dreaming of making when he worked for someone else.