Posh Spice: A Review of Marrow

Paying homage to far-off dishes with Hoosier warmth, Marrow answers the question: What in the world is John Adams up to now?
John Adams

Last June, chef John Adams (whose resume already read like a 20-month gourmet walkabout since he left Bluebeard in 2013) started talking about his next big venture—this weird, family-style world-cuisine dive in Fountain Square with gourmet aspirations and a Southern accent. He envisioned boiled peanuts and dim sum brunches, offal meats and nouveau tiki drinks in a space trimmed in reclaimed barn wood and set to a funky hip-hop beat, all of which sounded a bit unfocused and dreamy. Risky, even, considering how Indy diners like their restaurants to fit neatly into categories. They want to have an answer when someone asks that seemingly simple water-cooler question, “What kind of restaurant is it?” Italian, sushi, vegan—all acceptable, intelligible replies. Asian-comfort, Indian-chic, hillbilly tapas—not so much.

It’s a good thing Adams didn’t worry about the semantics. Marrow is as complex as its own deep, rich vegetable curry, with soothing notes of coconut and cinnamon playing up the subtle heat of a chili-spiked broth soaking carrots, potatoes, fennel, pillowy tofu, and … are those pistachios scattered beneath that tangle of slivered veggies? There’s a mysterious beauty in the murkiness, a face-melting appreciation of flavors that feel both exotic and comfortingly familiar. If this food needs some kind of user-friendly portmanteau, may I suggest globalicious?

Marrow opened in early November, transforming the former drop-ceilinged Maria’s Pizza into a sexy, dark roomful of russet tones and caged industrial lighting. A communal booth upholstered in a patchwork of gold and maroon fabrics that seem lifted from an ’80s-era fern bar lines one wall, itself paneled in slats of multicolored barn wood. Even the tables and chairs have a nice, worn-in patina: Adams repurposed them from an old Scotty’s Brewhouse spread that traded a life of Macho Nachos for heaping bowls of dashi-braised collard greens and prehistoric racks of sticky, slide-off-the- bone char siu ribs that defy polite table manners. “If the sauce doesn’t get all over your cheeks,” our server instructed, “you’re eating them wrong.”

Marrow ReviewThat’s the kind of lusty, adventurous attitude that serves you well when exploring a menu that meanders across the eastern hemisphere like an intrepid backpacker, making stops in China (for delicate pork-neck wontons, gossamer sesame-flecked dumplings sunk in sweet eel sauce), India (crispy balls of cauliflower sheathed in buttermilk pakora that were served with a swipe of mint chutney on one of Marrow’s early lineups), and Thailand (meaty curls of cornmeal-fried catfish soaking up the sour-sweet funkiness of lemongrass, ginger, chili oil, and fish sauce). Sometimes, Adams brings the dishes closer to home, as in his luscious, curry-buttered Mac & Paneer, a Bollywood remastering of elbow pasta, and soft brisket-stuffed steamed coco buns that transport the Filipino bakery treat to a backyard barbecue. Meanwhile, noodle trendsters can slurp their hearts out on shareable servings of the stout, Szechuan-style Dan Dan variety tossed with ground pork and preserved mustard greens, or brothy bowls of bun bo hue cooked with beef shank, oxtail, and shrimp balls.

It’s refreshing to chomp down on a hunk of pink confit duck meat that tastes not of salt and fat but rather the heady essence of tea smoke.

The rustic intricacy of these dishes fuses well with the kind of cooking that Adams—a seriously laidback flavor savant with a knack for elevated snackery and offbeat proteins—has made his calling card. His first foray into the restaurant scene was at Broad Ripple’s H2O Sushi, where he began as a high-school busboy and worked his way up the ranks to become executive chef. But most people versed in local foodlore will plot Adams’s arrival on Indy’s culinary timeline to 2012, when restaurateurs Tom and Ed Battista put the chef and his then-wife, Abbi Merriss, in charge of the kitchen at Fletcher Place’s trailblazing Bluebeard (where Merriss currently serves as chef). We have Adams and Bluebeard to thank for our many-tentacled love of grilled octopus and the occasional craving for gourmet pork skins dipped in horseradish cream.

Post-Bluebeard, Adams moved to Louisville and spent several months working at two of the top restaurants in that market, Milkwood and Proof on Main, before returning to Indianapolis to open Craig Baker’s Plow & Anchor. Then he made a surprise cameo at Broad Ripple’s casual, canal-side Flatwater Restaurant to overhaul the menu.

That this is not Adams’s first rodeo becomes clear in the confident polish of Marrow’s menu, which resists the old umami crutches of bacon and remoulade and exists in an absolute vacuum of roasted beets. It’s refreshing to chomp down on a hunk of pink confit duck meat that tastes not of salt and fat but rather the heady (overwhelming, some might say) essence of tea smoke. Fried tandoori chicken, which has the potential to turn into a schlocky display of spice and grease, instead arrives at the table as soothing and balanced as something you would eat at your grandmother’s house after church, the tender white meat tinged with cayenne and paprika. If that’s a little too much fire for your Midwestern palate, tamp the flames with sips of the house old-fashioned, which gets its mellow undertow from rye washed with bone marrow, or bar manager Steve Simon’s properly tangy take on the egg white–frothed cocktail: a Rorschach Sour tinged black with squid ink.

Desserts get the same worldly consideration, ranging from sticky rice pudding dressed up with a chutney-like saffron-and-carrot halva, to a sake-soaked tiramisu flavored with both cocoa and matcha and nearly boozy enough to qualify as an after-dinner drink. Banoffee fritters, caramel-dredged banana dumplings—one evening fried State Fair–style to the perfect crispy-fluffy ratio but then greasy dead weight on another—were a rare disappointment. Still … and maybe it’s the tiramisu talking here … Marrow is the kind of restaurant you never want to leave. Look around as you take those last sips of your pink umbrella–festooned Lion City Swing, and you see people who appear genuinely happy—especially the chef, tinkering with the rest of the staff in an illuminated kitchen at the back of the room. Adams might have set out to accomplish a lot with this multitasking restaurant that defies easy categorization. But the soulful harmony of what he managed to pull off proves that you can have it all.

1106 Prospect St., 986-6752

Tues.–Thurs. 5:30 p.m.–12:30 a.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30 p.m.–1:30 a.m.