Hitting the mark

Mark's on Henderson delivers on its promises

The simplest criterion I have for rating a restaurant is integrity: Does it deliver what it promises, or not? If all a restaurant pledges to provide is a clean place to eat a decent burger, and that's all you get, then, in my opinion, it's a good restaurant. But if a place charges $25 for entrees and requires reservations and a jacket, it's raised the bar and my expectations. Keeping promises gets harder.

The little cafe space now called Mark's on Henderson has always been an unfulfilled promise. It's never been quite what you wished it was, or even quite what it seemed to want to be. Tucked into that eclectic strip of Henderson made busy by the microbrewed beer boom next door, the apparently quaint storefront originally housed one of Dallas' first wine bars (La Cave), then a second (Pinot's), both limited by the lack of menu, which was limited by the lack of kitchen facilities. (Francois Chandou's La Cave was really a wine business misplaced in a cafe space--and enophiles don't mistake it for anything else now.)

From the beginning, this has always been the kind of place where you wanted to linger over dinner--there's something about the cozy little room that encourages intimate conversation. In fact, for a long time you could only linger over pate and cheese combinations with your wine. But, over the years, as owner has succeeded owner, the kitchen has expanded its repertoire along with its equipment. Its current incarnation, Mark's, promises a relaxed but gracious dining experience, featuring food that's unpretentious and not overly ambitious in a friendly atmosphere. That's exactly what you get.

There is a full, a la carte white-board dinner menu with a range of mid-priced appetizers and entrees. Mark's also has a retail license for wine, so you can order by the bottle, drink by the glass, and take the remainder home. So far, the selection is not quite broad enough--there could be more inexpensive (under $35) selections, which would best complement the style of Mark's food--but the mark-up is correct and the concept welcome.

Chef-owner Mark Jensen was most recently executive chef of Dallas pub pair Thomas Avenue Beverage Company and Green Elephant. He fell in love with the restaurant business while working his way through college. He fell in love with this location when he managed Pinot's for a couple of years in the early '90's. As we all know, love makes you do crazy things, so it's not surprising that Jensen decided to buy the restaurant when it became available.

Fortunately, he's already worked every position in the industry, so his current job description--janitor-manager-chef--doesn't really faze him. What he has done to save his sanity is limit the hours--Mark's is open for dinner five days a week. That's approximately a 74-hour work week, manageable for a chef. However, says Jensen, "I don't plan on turning anyone away." So the restaurant is also available for private lunches (for the eminently reasonable minimum charge of $200.)

During those 74 hours, Jensen runs the front and the back of the house, making the connection between Robert, the waiter, and the kitchen extremely tight. Jensen recognizes that the restaurant business is first and foremost a service business, so besides the daily menu, which always features beef, chicken, seafood, a couple of pasta dishes, and a vegetarian selection, he is willing to alter a dish to suit a diner's special diet or request.

Our first surprise at Mark's was the offer of a Caesar salad, prepared tableside. Robert brought out the tray-stand laden with torn romaine, little bowls of egg--real ones, anchovies, garlic, grated cheese--some for mixing in the dressing and some to toss with the lettuce, Worcestershire mixed with hot pepper, cruets of lemon juice, and the slow stream of olive that magically emulsifies it all. Surely the odor of that salad filled the whole room--as often as we eat Caesar salad in restaurants, we had almost forgotten what the real thing is like. It's not just fear of raw eggs that has diluted this dish into middle-of-the-road insipidity. It's fear of flavor. The second time we ate at Mark's, we took our daughter, a Caesar fan who faithfully attends the annual AIWF competition to seriously taste and compare the wildest Caesar-inspired creations of Dallas' edgiest chefs, and who insists on her aunt's Crescent Club Caesar dressing for every birthday. (Of course, she had no idea that raw eggs and fish were part of the deal.) And I have to admit, I was pleased that she pronounced this unabashedly assertive Caesar salad the best.

Two dinners at Mark's began with shrimp, the first time broiled with dried tomato pesto, the second time with cilantro pesto, both times the firm, just-cooked shellfish curled sizzling on a plate drizzled with vivid pesto, the green paste gritty with tiny nuggets of recognizable nut, the red one fragrant with concentrated fruitiness. (We wanted bread but bread is, I hope, a work in progress. The slices were seemingly stale but toasted, which didn't rejuvenate them as much as perhaps the kitchen might have hoped.)

I went to a Memorial Day brunch where the centerpiece of the menu was simply sausages--as daring as a dinner of nothing but caviar in these puritan times. At Mark's, we had a dinner of grilled wild boar sausage, served on a bed of (almost overly) creamy risotto, with a tangle of melted purple onions. And the emphasis was, as it had been at brunch, not the weight we anticipated from the word "sausages," but the vividness of flavor and contrast of textures instead.

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