Dining Out: It’s ‘Live to eat’ at Marco Polo

Pictured are Marco Polo restaurant owners Karen and Tom Naifeh with Chef Joe Volpe, left.  Tom Naifeh has been with Marco Polo since the doors opened 25 years ago as a server. In 1998 he took over as owner and has kept the same ambiance.

Photo by KELLI STANKO // Buy this photo

Pictured are Marco Polo restaurant owners Karen and Tom Naifeh with Chef Joe Volpe, left. Tom Naifeh has been with Marco Polo since the doors opened 25 years ago as a server. In 1998 he took over as owner and has kept the same ambiance.

If you go: Marco Polo

Hours: Open 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Music nightly. The piano bar is open until the last person leaves.

Cuisine: Continental

Drinks: Full bar

Atmosphere: Contemporary supper club

Service: Exemplary

Prices: Appetizers $9 to $16; soups and salads $8 to $10; entrées $19 to $39; desserts $7 to $22 (souffle for two). Children’s menu $8 - $9 or most menu items may also be prepared for children in half-portions at half price.

Recommended dishes: Caramelized onion tart, calamari, seared diver scallops, Idaho rainbow trout, bananas Foster and cherries jubilee

Verdict: A great place for large groups, families and tables for two. Come early for a before dinner drink and stay late for a song or two at the piano bar. Wonderful food and superb service made a perfect night.

— Is there an answer to the age-old question, “Does one live to eat, or eat to live?” At my house on some days it is “eat to live” and on others, “live to eat.” I have to admit those “live to eat “days are much better.

A recent evening out included dinner at the Marco Polo Restaurant, and that was definitely a “live to eat” kind of day.

The restaurant, white with burgundy awnings, is tucked in among the two-story buildings that face Marco Lake. The outside of the restaurant is nothing to write home about, but don’t judge a book by its cover. Nothing beachy about this place — it’s pure swank, like a Manhattan supper club. There are crisp white tablecloths on the tables and a candle and single rose complement the elegant table settings.

For appetizers, Noah, 13, had his heart set on fried calamari and Samantha, 11, chose the caramelized onion tart.

Noah asked the waiter, John, about a few entrees and decided on the rainbow trout. Samantha stayed in her comfort zone with the chicken piccata. I thought about ordering the Dover sole, imported from namesake Dover, England, but gulped at the price. The seared diver scallops, featured on the “Chef’s Menu,” were the final choice.

The menu features a Caesar salad prepared tableside, but salads are included with the entrees, so we decided that house salads would be just fine.

John mentioned that if we wanted to order the dessert soufflé for two the kitchen requests it be ordered in advance. But Noah and Samantha were already mesmerized by the servers preparing flambéed cherries jubilee and bananas Foster on a cart brought to the table. There was no way they were going to pass up the tableside show for an ovenbound dessert.

Our server brought out a “chef’s treat” before the appetizers arrived: A one-bite garlic toast point with a dollop of creamy hummus, just enough to whet the appetite.

A bountiful portion of fried calamari, enough for three people to share, with a creamy marina sauce arrived at the table next.

“Here, Mom, have a tentacle,” Noah smirked, knowing that I prefer the round rings. “The breading is not too heavy, and the squid is not overcooked. I like these thicker rings,” he added.

Samantha cut the onion tart in half so we could share and took the first bite and pronounced it “so good!” The sweet pastry crust was the perfect shell for the caramelized onions, gruyere cheese, bacon and cream. The ingredients worked magic together. We only wished for a bigger piece of the pie.

Salads were served and there was no skimping on the children’s portions. Fresh greens dressed in a house vinaigrette and Roma tomatoes were delish.

A surprising “chef’s treat” No. 2 arrived after the salads and before the entrée — a small scoop of lemon sorbet in a frosted cup.

Then John brought our entrees to the table. Each plate was a work of art.

Silver skinned trout perched on a mound of creamy orange sweet potatoes. Sautéed spinach with a hint of sesame seeds topped the trout and the tomato concasse crowned all. Crunchy bits of pecan praline rested in a pool of citrus butter sauce on the plate. Noah marveled at the taste of trout, not knowing what to expect of a freshwater fish he had never tasted before.

The chicken piccata, thinly sliced sautéed breast, almost floated in the lemon, butter and white wine sauce. Green capers and a mound of lightly mashed potatoes finished the dish. Samantha savored each bite of the chicken, swishing it in the lemony-yellow sauce. Capers added a salty nip and might have overwhelmed the dish had they not been handled so strategically.

Three large seared diver scallops formed a triangle around the wonderful sweet potato puree on my plate. A crab cake peeked out under the maque choux, a confetti of yellow corn, green and red peppers and spicy andouille sausage. The orange-and-ginger beurre blanc complemented the mild, tender scallops.

We finally decided on the cherries jubilee over the bananas Foster. It was a hard choice. Both looked so tempting.

John wheeled the cart to our table and our personal show began. Butter, cane sugar, black cherry rum, flavored liqueur, black cherries and cinnamon were flambéed and served over scoops of vanilla ice cream. Dessert deserved a standing ovation.

On this particular day, we lived to eat, and the splendid meal and superb service at Marco Polo were divine reminders.

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