Marrow is a contradictory food—brutish but genteel, fatty but healthful, nearly flavorless but somehow richer than anything you've ever put in your mouth. Some smear the hot, buttery stuff on sandwiches, others mix it into soup stocks, but marrow is best enjoyed the old-fashioned, barbaric way: as a molten core of yellowy-white globs, sucked directly from roasted bones.
Marrow is the essence of an animal, the hidden place where blood is made. Gray's Anatomy says yellow marrow (instead of red marrow, found in thin bones and bone ends) is 96 percent fat—the healthful, cholesterol-lowering kind of fat, for those who care. Like a raw oyster, a spoonful of marrow glistens and shimmers like it's still alive. A mouthful of the stuff imparts an instant animal vigor. Marrow is a superfood.
With all the gnawing and sucking, eating marrow is a little lewd, and eating it in public sometimes attracts lewd attention. During a recent meal of marrow at Quinn's on Capitol Hill, a stranger at the bar batted her eyes and asked if she could try some. Another stranger said he'd never "eaten bone" (nobody had asked) but added, with a suggestive leer, that he "saw it once in a European movie." A quality meal of marrow ends with greasy hands and an oily face, a scraped tongue and a tired jaw. It is, arguably, best kept a private pleasure.
Though enjoyed always and everywhere, marrow is popularly reckoned a quaint, old-world food for peasants and farmers—I learned to eat marrow from my grandfather, a Virginia farm boy who chewed the ends of chicken bones and bit them in half, lengthwise, to gnaw at the web of tasty red fibers. Another notable marrow admirer: a species of mountain vulture called the ossifrage or "bone crusher." A scavenger that doesn't like rotting meat, the bone crusher prefers to shatter big bones by dropping them from the sky and pecking out the marrow inside. It is said that Aeschylus was killed by a bone crusher: The bird mistook the playwright's bald head for a rock and smashed it with a turtle dropped from a great height.
Despite—or perhaps because of—its uncouth reputation, marrow has been creeping into fashionable restaurants for the last 10 years, elevated in part by the success of Fergus Henderson, the London chef who opened the famous St. John restaurant (specialties: trotter, offal, marrow) and wrote The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, a manifesto for sensitive butchers.
Seattle got its first taste of contemporary restaurant marrow in the spring of 2006, when Crémant opened and began serving simply roasted bones, French style. Last June, marrow appeared on the menu at Smith, the new pub on Capitol Hill. A few months later, marrow appeared at Quinn's, another new pub on Capitol Hill. (What does this sudden proliferation of marrow mean? A lowly meat promoted to urban fad, the new marrow seems decadent and Roman, a portentous delicacy for the Last Days.)
The preparation should be simple: hot bones bubbling with fat, served with a small dish of salt, bread, and a spoon. Crémant realizes the ideal. Its marrow ($12) is buttery, white, and evenly roasted, the bones cut short for convenient extraction. Ignore the accompanying toast: The flavor of burnt bread, however expertly prepared, overwhelms the main event. The house French bread is a better vehicle for marrow's subtle, unctuous richness.
Quinn's makes the best presentation: an oblong plate with bones ($7) on one side, bread on the other, and, in the center, a small pile of bright green watercress. The fat inside is less consistent than Crémant's, some grayer and looser, some whiter and more coagulated—the latter is better. Chef Scott Staples caps his marrowbones with a red-onion marmalade, to add acidity and sweetness. Quinn's also serves a medallion of fried marrow with its oxtail gnocchi ($13). "Marrow is like foie gras," Staples says. "There's a lot to it, but it's also kind of an open canvas." No need to gild the lily, I say. The bones are the thing.
Smith also presents its marrow ($8) with some welcome greenery, a refreshing celery-endive salad. The marrow is bubbling, white, and delicious but, instead of bread, Smith serves its bones with salty Triscuits—a cute, self-conscious detraction. Marrow has a humble history, but it isn't old-world Cheez Whiz.
To its credit, Smith has dim corner booths where you can hunch like an animal, back to the door, licking at fat and chewing on gristle in relative privacy.