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A City Restaurant for the '90s

Comfort is key, says food forecaster and co-owner Clark Wolf at the Markam in New York

CLARK WOLF is a master forecaster of food trends. Restaurateurs call him for advice. Food companies ask for his expertise. Journalists track him down for information.

In the 1980s he predicted the popularity of pasta and the rise and fall of oat bran.

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These days, the buzz is about ``comfort food,'' and the energetic consultant is listening to his own advice - as owner of the Markham, a one-year-old restaurant in New York.

At 59 Fifth Avenue, the Markham has evolved into an ``in'' hangout for a high-profile clientele, notably bigwigs from the publishing and fashion worlds.

Despite the glittery patrons, Wolf and his partners, Ansell Hawkins (former manager of Odeon) and Beat Hellstern (film producer), are ultraconscious of keeping the 90-seat restaurant and downstairs cafe a low-key neighborhood place.

On some nights, people in black tie mingle with people wearing T-shirts and blue jeans. ``That's the way we like it,'' Wolf says. ``People come here to be down-to-earth.''

Located on the parlor floor of an 1880s townhouse, the Markham was named in part after poet Edwin Markham and the hybrid peach created by J.E. Markham in California in the 1930s.

From the way the restaurant functions to its food, atmosphere, and decor, the Markham is a manifestation of what a restaurant should be in the '90s - in the eyes of a few industry experts. ``The hardest part is listening to your own advice,'' Wolf says in a stop-and-go interview during a busy lunch hour.

Take the role of a restaurant, for example. A restaurant needs to be useful to people, Wolf says. The Markham is open seven days a week until 1 a.m., and keeps 25 seats unreserved so locals know they can just stop by.

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Also, a restaurant should be a backdrop for life, Wolf says, not full of distractions. People should be the focus, not fancy-looking food. ``We don't want people to say, `Oh my goodness,' when food goes by,'' Wolf says, widening his eyes.

One surmises that Wolf and his partners think similarly about decor - that it should be easy to digest and not overwhelming. In fact, the Markham is almost plain with its bare, cream-colored walls, dark floors, and chandeliers. The ceiling is accented by decorative molding, and the focal point of the dining room is an enormous old armoire.

``So often, restaurants are designed for architect's portfolios. This room is for your comfort, not the architects', not mine,'' Wolf says. Pointing out the bare walls, he explains that ``artists and photographers sit here and imagine their work on the wall.''

Interview magazine's Hal Rubenstein writes: ``Convivial, comfortable, accommodating, affordable, and inclusive, the Markham is one of those rare places that takes off pronto without anyone questioning its success. People actually eat there to enjoy themselves....''

Praise the menu for brevity: Dishes are described in a few words, not an avalanche of adjectives.

You want to hear the specials? You can't. Specials are printed on the menu because many people can't absorb all that information -

they have to ask ``what was that second one, the salmon thing, could you repeat it?''

Wolf describes the fare as American - with a seasonal emphasis. ``We wanted food to be very naturalistic, not designed food.'' To the diner, the cuisine is a combination of down-home decency and delight. It's delicious and doesn't shout out, ``Try to top this!''

Chef Mark Spagenthal is largely responsible. A recommended meal starts with Pan-fried artichokes ($9.50) and Aged Goat Cheese Salad (mixed chicories with warm bacon vinaigrette, $9.50), and a main course of Cedar-planked Salmon on braised greens (served with mashed potatoes and preserved tomatoes, $16.50).

The ``homey'' dessert menu is particularly telling: spice cake, warm chocolate cake, pear cobbler, apple tart, rice pudding, roasted banana mille-feuille, and maple creme bre (about $5 or $6).

Wolf further defines ``comfort food.'' ``There's a difference between homey-style and homemade,'' he says. People don't want ``homemade'' in restaurants.

Another trend the Markham predicts is more vegetables-only dishes. Wolf points out that there's no ``vegetarian plate'' on the menu; ``Vegetarians are people, not dishes,'' he scoffs.

The highest compliment the Markham has received was when two food critics brought their families back for dinner during the holidays, Wolf says. ``These were people I really respect, and that pleased me the most.''

``Food is culture, that's why I like it,'' he muses. ``It's a cultural evolution. I'm never bored by it, never perplexed by it.''

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