Try as he might, Brian Molino cannot seem to unleash his inner chef-diva. Despite having inherited the mantle of executive chef at Marché at 74 State—one of the Capital Region’s most buzzed-about new restaurants, and serving food that actually lives up to the hype—Molino is polite, diplomatic, and possesses a disarming “aw-shucks” demeanor that would send Gordon Ramsay into a fork-flinging rage. Considering that Molino’s food is some of the best to be found in the tri-state area, it’s amazing he hasn’t yet found a larger audience. “We’re taking off slowly,” he says. “It’s increasingly getting busier, so we’re expanding at a pace that’s been nice.”
“Nice” is precisely the word to describe the knowledgeable, yet soft-spoken Molino, who grew up outside Philadelphia and moved to Albany during high school. After training at the Culinary Institute of America, he got the ultimate first job, working the vegetable station at New York City’s Craft, the premier restaurant of celebrity chef and restaurant impresario Tom Colicchio. Within nine months, Molino was promoted to sous chef. “Craft was a great fit,” he says. “Tom was excellent to work for, and the philosophy they have—local and seasonal as much as possible—is very similar to what we do here. The biggest difference is that they do incredibly high volume and still have to maintain the quality. It was important for me to learn that standard, even if the volume isn’t as high in this area.”
Molino tired of the New York City pace, and three years later moved back north. He was hired earlier this year as second-in-command to Eric Masson, a Parisian chef who had been brought on board at 74 State to develop the new hotel’s entire food service program—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and room service, as well as the lighter-bites menu served at the hotel’s upstairs bar, and to oversee Marché. Masson’s reputation for gastronomic finesse preceded him, but just five days after the restaurant opened, he was gone, with the management citing “philosophical differences.”
When asked if he can clarify the vague turn of phrase, Molino smiles, blushes, and says, “Nope.” Nevertheless, suddenly the 27-year-old was in charge of the kitchen. He admits he inherited a difficult situation, but continues, “I think [sous chef] Erin Boyle, [hotel general manager] Gary Smith, and I were carrying most of the momentum to begin with, so it turned out to be a very smooth transition.” The ongoing challenge has been to retain top-quality staff in an industry where turnover can be a monthly scourge. Molino currently manages a kitchen crew of 14, and the front-of-house staff, guided by dining manager Eric Stewart, numbers 20.
The 74-seat restaurant (in keeping with its street-number theme, the hotel also has 74 guest rooms) is the perfect size for the smaller, made-to-order menu, and has an upscale Old World ambience that is warm and comfortable. During dinner service, the iron pendant lamps, honey-colored Venetian plaster walls, and dark upholstered chairs and banquettes with nailhead trim are contrasted with stark white table linens. In the soft glow of candlelight and parchment-covered wall sconces, silver chargers cast bubblelike reflections on the ceiling. Large-paned mirrors over the booths along the walls also reflect light and make the room appear larger, as do the high, white embossed-tin ceilings. The overall effect is soothing, encouraging the diner to slow down and savor every bite.
It’s easy to appreciate the food at Marché. Molino began revamping the menu almost immediately after taking the helm, and discussing it is the only time he even comes close to bad-mouthing a colleague. He explains, “It was a very conscious decision to change [the menu]. I took out a lot of the weak links.... ” He stops, searching for the right words. “I change my mind a lot, and I wanted to do something new and different. There are now only two dishes [the Escargot and the House Salad] from the original menu. It’s constantly evolving.”
The new menu is a mind-meld of European fresh-market cuisine and American standbys reinterpreted for the modern, food-smart diner. Molino’s sauces and sides are creative and attention-grabbing, and the results are sublime. For example, you could try the Market Salad with flavorful mixed local lettuces, roasted beets, local goat cheese, candied walnuts, and a delightfully floral vanilla-beet vinaigrette, then progress to a first course such as the tangy Grass-Fed Beef Carpaccio with grape mustard, pickled shallots, and aged balsamic vinegar. There are seven entrees to choose from, including the rich Pancetta-Wrapped Chicken Breast with smoked chicken ravioli, baby turnips, and tarragon sauce, and the Eggplant Napoleon, which boasts a dreamy combination of fried eggplant rounds layered with goat cheese mousse, tomato jam, and shallots. Marché is not the place for a cheap-eats meal—a soup or salad, appetizer, and entree run about $42—but you could easily make dinner of a salad and a generously sized first course. Regardless of whether you choose the three-course à la carte, six-course degustation menu, or salad-and-appetizer route, the meal will be worth every penny.