- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

Marvin projects the atmosphere of a London pub: a cheerful barmaid at a dark-wood-paneled bar, a patterned tin ceiling, a mirror along one wall to make the narrow restaurant appear more expansive.

The small bulbs hanging from the ceiling lend the place an air of the 1920s, when gin was served in tiny coffee cups in the dives on U Street in its heyday. Busy waiters scurry about, keeping their customers happy.

Marvin, on 14th Street Northwest near the Reeves Center, the District’s government building, is an authentic neighborhood gathering place, named for Marvin Gaye, the Washington-born singer, songwriter and composer. An enormous replica of a Gaye album cover adorns the north wall. Because he lived in Belgium for several years, the menu offers a happily schizophrenic combination of Belgian and American dishes, with Southern accents.

The dishes are imaginative and always good — often very good. The wines are mostly French and mostly average. The choice of beers, including Belgian on tap, is first-rate.

Start with a dish of baby-back ribs. They’re terrific — sweet, smoky and meaty. Absolutely finger-lickin’ good. Or begin with the shrimp with creamy and lightly cheesy grits. The grits, ever so slightly gritty, are wonderful, and the wild shrimp are nicely grilled.

Appetizers include Belgian cheese croquettes and onion soup. The broth is rich and flavorful but too quickly absorbed by all the bread and cheese atop the soup — no broth to sop and savor.

Duck confit, “liver ‘n’ onions” (seared foie gras with Vidalia onion and pears) and sea scallops round out the appetizers. The three large scallops are nicely crisp on the outside and go well with a small serving of braised leeks.

Salads are large. Aside from a couple made with various greens, a Nicoise salad is virtually a main course, or a starter easily shared. The most interesting salad — and Belgian in spirit — is a combination of endive and asparagus. The endive is paired with perfectly cooked, large, well-trimmed asparagus. The dish is enhanced with a poached egg and a sprinkling of small squares of crispy country ham. The egg yolk serves as part of the dressing. It’s a fine mix of textures and flavors.

A bowl of mussels befits even a pseudo-Belgian restaurant, and Marvin serves them in a shallot and white wine sauce; with bacon, leeks and ale; with creamed mushrooms; in a coconut curry; and in andouille sausage gumbo. They’re served with french fries, which were invented in Belgium. The fries are chewy and good and come with dishes of ketchup, wasabi mayonnaise and mustard mayonnaise. Belgians eat their fries with mayonnaise. The portion of mussels is large enough to share as a first course.

Entrees tend more toward American dishes: pan-seared halibut; braised pork shank with green lentils; sweet-potato ravioli with watercress, walnuts and brown butter; and an excellent, crisp deep-fried filet of sole served with good collards and white asparagus.

Beef short ribs are prepared carbonnade style, braised in beer. Marvin’s short ribs are rich and tender, accompanied by baby vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes. Rib-eye steak is topped with crumbled blue cheese and served with french fries and a side of baby greens. My very good steak was exactly as ordered but without the bordelaise sauce listed on the menu.

More Belgian than American is lobster waterzooi, a stew of lobster with mussels, clams and shrimp. Perhaps the ultimate international combination is Southern-fried chicken and Belgian waffles.

Desserts are a pear tart, Belgian chocolates, a chocolate waffle and an apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream. The cobbler, more like a crumble, would have been better with a little more apple.

Marvin isn’t open for lunch, but brunch is served on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays, it’s Bubbling Brown Sugar, a disco brunch; on Sundays, its Sunday School, a “soulful house brunch.” The menu offers such dishes as bacon-egg-cheese waffles, steak ‘n’ eggs, creamed chipped beef on biscuits, salads, oysters, fish ‘n’ fries, eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles.

The restaurant is on the street level, with a lounge upstairs where dinner can be ordered during the week. The rooftop bar is particularly attractive. Several well-placed heat lamps keep the temperature pleasant on cool early-spring nights, and the view of roofs and walls decorated with murals is delightful.

Marvin is fun.

MARVIN: 2007 14th St. NW; 202/797-7171, www.marvindc.com

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and to midnight on Friday and Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers and salads $7 to $15; main courses $14 to $25; desserts $7 to $9; brunch entrees $12 to $22

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: U Street Station

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