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Marko’s on 2nd
*****
Out of a possible five
$$$$

Southern fare hits mark of perfection

Nestled in downtown Decatur, Marko’s on 2nd is everything a small-town restaurant should be.

It resides in a beautifully rustic, 100-plus-year-old building with eye-catching quirks, and it is the kind of place where seemingly everyone knows one another.

One night, it was a pair of local farmers discussing their trade. On another, it was the athletic director from an area high school celebrating a birthday and making the rounds to talk with friends.

It is a family business, too. Decatur native Mark Graves is the head chef and owns and operates the restaurant with his parents, John and Cathee Graves, and his sister, Kimberlee Hurst. A tip in case his mom is behind the bar; I hear she makes a killer bloody mary. And Hurst, who handles pastry chef duties while also occasionally waiting tables, makes a killer pecan pie.

But don’t assume Marko’s is the typical run-of-the-mill, small-town diner.

Marko’s is one of, if not the, finest eateries in northeast Indiana with one of, if not the, most talented chefs in the area.

Graves was classically trained at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, S.C., and earned his chops in New Orleans at the legendary Brennan’s before returning to Charleston for stints at Magnolias, Cypress Grille and Blossom under renowned chef Donald Barickman.

And now he creates down-home Southern fare with just the right amount of whimsy to make it true haute cuisine.

A prime example was his Lowcountry shrimp and grits. Plump, sweet jumbo shrimp were nestled in a circle atop creamy, rich, perfectly executed Anson Mills grits. Slices of sweet Italian sausage sat inside the shrimp circle and it was covered with tasso ham gravy. The ham, a Cajun specialty, adds just the right spice to counteract the sweet shrimp and sausage, and the grits are simply heavenly.

It doesn’t get more Southern than pulled pork, so of course the barbecued sliders were winners. With blue cheese slaw, yellow cheddar and an herb aioli joining the pork soaked with the spicy-sweet house chipotle barbecue sauce, these weren’t just simple sliders.

But one shouldn’t conclude Marko’s only offers Southern fare. Graves does quite well when breaking from his chef roots.

His brilliant Spicy Tuna Tar Tar was Asian all the way. Its pristine diced tuna was dressed with a reduction of shitake mushrooms, soy and a little brown sugar that created a strong umami flavor with a sweet finish. Served over black sesame sticky rice, it had some heat from a little wasabi mustard and crunch from fried won ton wraps that were dusted with zesty Chinese five-spice.

His lobster salad was also in no way Southern. Chopped Maine lobster knuckles and an entire claw sat atop fresh arugula heavily dressed with smoky citrus buttermilk dressing that was creamy (buttermilk), tangy (citrus) and smoky. It was perfect with the peppery greens and sweet lobster.

The only bad thing about the lobster salad was that it was an off-menu weekly special that will never be available again. During the restaurant’s seven-year run, Graves has never repeated a special. Blame it on the chef’s ego or just chalk it up to him striving to keep things fresh, but it often makes a visit bittersweet.

I loved the applewood smoked bacon-wrapped mahi-mahi – probably the best piece of mahi I have ever had – but it was a special so I won’t have it again. The bacon fat that rendered into that fish turned what is usually a firm and meaty fish into something moist and succulent.

Tilapia is always on the menu and it, too, impressed. It was pan-seared and is usually served with Parmesan risotto, sautéed spinach, demi-glace and herbed creamy crabmeat. But I followed the advice of Ike and Susan Mendez – Decatur residents and semi-regulars at Marko’s who, of course, knew about everyone there – and asked for wasabi mashed potatoes instead.

The fish was perfectly prepared, the spinach was also nice, but the creamy, velvety mashed potatoes with that wasabi zip really shined.

I thought the demi-glace was forced into the dish, which really didn’t need a sauce given the moisture coming from the spinach and the creamy crab, also a fine accompaniment.

For dessert, the molten chocolate cherry cake is a staple at Marko’s and it is also made by Hurst. It is sinfully decadent with macerated cherries on top and that oozing melted chocolate center. But the dessert I liked almost as much was the raspberry tart.

A flaky delicious crust was filled with a bright pink whipped mixture that sort of reminded me of those bad marshmallow Jell-O salads an aunt would bring to the family reunion – but in a good way. The filling was surprisingly tart, but the addition of beautiful candied rose petals on top added just the right sugary sweetness and rounded out the dessert beautifully.

But it, too, was a special around Valentine’s Day, so I’m unsure whether it will come back. But maybe Hurst isn’t as strict about her specials as her brother is, so we can hope.

I hope I get a chance to eat at Marko’s on 2nd again soon. It was the first five-star review I had ever written nearly seven years ago and it hasn’t slipped a bit since.

It has only gotten better.

Restaurant: Marko’s on 2nd

Address: 135 South 2nd St., Decatur

Phone: 260-724-8880

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: No

Alcohol: Full bar

Smoking status: Both; smoking in bar only

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: No

Menu: Pork sliders ($9), Tuna Tar Tar ($13), shrimp and grits ($19), tilapia ($24), pecan pie ($3), dessert special ($7.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter (@DiningOutDuVall) and he can be heard every Thursday from 3 to 4 p.m. on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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