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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Unwind with Marco, and join the club

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Marco's Supperclub


2510 First Ave., Seattle; 206-441-7801

Eclectic

$$$

***

Web site: www.marcossupperclub.com

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinners 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: lunch starters $5-$8, entrees $10-$12, dinner starters $5-$15, entrees $15-$23, desserts $6.

Wine list: Geographically wide-ranging. Many bottles priced at $30 or less, plus an "off list" of more obscure or limited labels.

Sound: loud.

Parking: none provided; pay lot next door.

Who should go: Fun-seekers with a love of classic jazz and well-tuned drinks, a taste for globally inspired eats and a hankering for a haven from the hipoisie.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / smoking at bar only / obstacles to access (steps to patio).

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A guy walks into a bar. He's tired, hungry and looking forward to a visit with his friend Jack Daniels. A tall, lanky fellow bids the stranger warm welcome, offers a barstool, a table, whichever suits him best. The guy takes a seat at the bar, watching as the fellow grabs a bottle of Jack, a glass and some ice and gracefully composes his drink.

In that quiet evening hour, in what will soon be a very noisy Friday night, the sweet voice of Rosemary Clooney rises and falls in the background and the man behind the bar turns toward the door to see a woman enter. "The plot thickens," he says under his breath as she takes a seat at the drinker's elbow.

She is me. The guy is my husband. And the bartender is Marco Rulff, owner of one of the best boîtes in town. I had small hope of arriving undetected at Marco's Supperclub, where I'm no stranger to its comfort or its low-key charm.

Ten years ago, Rulff and Donna Moodie introduced Seattle to their intimate little bistro, marking the happy union of two savvy new restaurateurs — former waiters who'd prove adept at keeping talent in their kitchen, creativity on their menu and a stellar service staff in their dining room. They duplicated that success by opening a second Belltown bistro, Lush Life. And when their union proved happy no longer, they split the sheets: Moodie got Lush Life, later transforming it into Marjorie, while Rulff kept the "Supperclub" that bears his name.

If you were impressed with Marco's from its inception, drawn by its lived-in look and the ease with which one is made to feel at home, you'll be pleased to note that (discounting the gray in Marco's hair) little has changed since.

Newcomers will find all we've come to know and love from the start: the mismatched tableware and kitschy salt and pepper shakers; the well-made cocktails and Marco's very personal, affordable wine list; an eagle-eyed busboy doling out bread from a wicker basket and clearing plates to make way for fabulous housemade desserts.

First-timers might take in the small details: wine bottles lined up along the walls; shadow boxes bearing knickknacks; New Yorker magazines for perusal; and ashtrays on one of the few bars in town where one might smoke in the company of discerning diners.

The menu, as always, offers a global warming of inspired eats. This is comforting fare with ethnic influences, including favorites — such as the fried-sage-leaf appetizer and Jamaican jerk chicken — that became instant classics when Marco's made its debut.

Those signature sage leaves, flash-fried till light and crunchy, arrive in a jumbled heap ($8). Each small pungent leaf is coated with rice flour and poppy seeds and meant for dipping into a trio of sauces: tomato chipotle, tomatillo salsa and garlicky aioli. Marco has retained custody of Donna's jerk-chicken recipe, a family heirloom that comes steaming to the table with pureed yams and sautéed greens ($12/lunch, $16/dinner). Half a plump juicy bird, it's even better than I recalled, the roasted skin resonating with cinnamon, cumin, allspice and chilies.

In the kitchen, chef Joey Serquinia follows in the footsteps of the lead chefs who've come (and gone) before him, lending his talents to the greater mission: keeping the menu ever-changing yet comfortably constant. A scaled-down version of the dinner menu is now offered at weekday lunch, best enjoyed in warm weather on the colorful patio secreted away in back.

Entree portions are generous, making starters an exercise in excess. Not that that should stop you from trying the clean-tasting shiitake-mushroom spring rolls, whose parchment-thin wrapper keeps a tight grasp on crisp vegetables ($8). Or the salt-and-pepper squid with a "four-flavor" vinaigrette ($9), a rich, tomato-based sauce whose "flavors" — hot, salty, sour, sweet — are enhanced by the Chinese five-spice scenting the squid.

The tapas platter, a high-quality assortment of Spanish imports including nuts, cheeses and chorizo ($15), is better passed among friends, though I could picture myself bogarting the whole thing, preceded with a simple Caesar ($6), and calling it dinner. Tapas lovers will also do well at lunch, when "tortilla espanole" — a lush, lovely layering of egg and creamy potatoes — arrives in a moat of warm, herb-scented olive oil intensified with crimini mushrooms ($10).

Chile rellenos are a south-of-the-border celebration of fresh roasted poblanos, dusted with crunchy-textured blue cornmeal and oozing sweet corn and a mild cheese blend ($11 lunch/$15 dinner). Thailand tantalizes in the guise of yellow curry tombo ($18), an eye-catching composition of seared-rare tuna atop black sticky rice, the custardy grains, imbued with sweet coconut milk, tempering the curry's heat.

Everything's better with bacon, including Marco's "pub steak" ($23), a pork-wrapped, stout-sauced Australian beef tenderloin with slender salted frites. And everything Moroccan is better with couscous, including the boldly spice-rubbed lamb loin ($20) arrayed in aromatic splendor over that raisin-speckled semolina. Garnishes include a creamy harissa that plays fiery counterpoint to a cool pistachio yogurt.

Desserts ($6) take on a distinctive seasonal flavor, apparent when boozy cherries add sweet meat to a superb gelato and panna cotta appears with bright strawberries and a seductive saucing of reduced balsamico.

Belltown has grown up around Marco's. And Marco's has matured during its tenure here. Nightly crowds still attest to its success, echoing the success of the fellow whose name remains an invitation to relaxation.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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