Having once cooked for Michelle Obama, this out-of-towner is now a Pittsburgh restaurateur

Chef Dennis Marron is opening two seafood-centric restaurants in a month




Not many chefs move to a new city and, two years later, open two restaurants within a month. But that’s exactly what Dennis Marron is doing.

He opened or, The Whale in Downtown’s new Distrikt Hotel mid-September and his Merchant Oyster Co. will drop anchor at 4129 Butler St. in Lawrenceville in the next week or so.

Although the idea behind Merchant Oyster Co. has been in the back of Mr. Marron’s mind “for years,” or, The Whale — the seafood-centric restaurant that also serves brunch all day — came to be after he met Greenway Realty Holdings’ Scott Schroeder behind the now-open Distrikt Hotel. That relationship has allowed Mr. Marron to carry out his dream to open a restaurant — and then some.

Even as he navigates the details of these openings, he says he’s on an even keel. “I don’t get too worked up,” he says. “I am good at time management.”

Buoyed at the corner of Butler and 42nd streets, Merchant Oyster Co.’s deep-blue-sea-colored building encapsulates the docks, beach clubs, and boat houses of Mr. Marron’s youth on the shorelines around Rumson and Sea Bright, N.J. As the name implies, the restaurant will serve raw oysters — around a dozen variations shucked to order —  as well as steamers, chowders, lobster rolls and a pork roll sandwich, a breakfast icon of the Jersey Shore.

 Landing an investor

Sometime in 2015, Mr. Schroeder approached Mr. Marron because he wanted to talk with him about steering the restaurant at Distrikt Hotel he was building Downtown. Mr. Schroeder had been following Mr. Marron’s work with Jessica Lewis at Carota Cafe, a former vendor at Smallman Galley in the Strip District, and at his opening of The Commoner in the Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco, Downtown.

Mr. Marron came to Pittsburgh with a near decade-long career working for Kimpton, including his role as head chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Washington, D.C., where he once cooked for Michelle Obama’s birthday celebration. Though he was instrumental in shaping the concept at The Commoner, he stayed as head chef less than a year. By then, Mr. Marron had established roots in Pittsburgh and announced his plans to open his own restaurant. At that point, he had secured a commitment from a different investor; but after Mr. Schroeder offered Mr. Marron the restaurant space at Distrikt Hotel, he decided to partner with him in his Lawrenceville restaurant, too.

The newer sibling

Architectural firm Artemis helped Mr. Marron articulate his design for Merchant Oyster Co., using nautical objects such as ship oars, glass buoys and reclaimed portholes as accents. “Don’t give up the ship,” reads a mural adjacent to the raw bar: the dying words of American officer James Lawrence in 1813 aboard the USS Chesapeake.

“I love this space,” he says, having eyed it even after it had been leased by another out-of-towner. The lease fell through and he was in the right place at the right time: he was checking out the building while the landlord was on the premises. One thing led to another, and he got the space.

Today, the restaurant that seats 60 inside is like entering a ship’s cabin, with a downstairs that’s more long than wide, with wood-beam ceilings and reclaimed ship lights around the bar. Beverage manager Nick Foust has put together more than 20 types of beers — including pitchers — and wines by the glass, tap or cans. He also has an uncomplicated cocktail list, such as a version of the ’90s fave, the Cosmo and a take on the Hurricane called the Nor’Easter.

The open kitchen sits in the back of the room where cooks will turn out orders for steamers, lobster rolls and four versions of chowder: New England-style, red, clear and a rotating special. Boardwalk-style hot dogs are also an option, inspired by Max’s of Long Branch, serving semi-charred foot-longs — a masterpiece of the genre (I’m from the same town in New Jersey so I’m biased.)

And then there’s that pork roll, a New Jersey variation of New York’s ubiquitous bacon-egg-and-cheese on a hard roll, like a poor man’s mortadella. Also called Taylor ham, the processed pork product is sometimes greasy and some would say delicious. It’s always on the menu.

Even though the downstairs riffs on the cabin of a ship, the room is not dark, especially when it’s nice out, with open-air windows that make the inside feel as if it’s outdoors. Upstairs, white director chairs align a cozy bar while rocking chairs in a corner lend a feel of a dock or a porch with a waterside view.

By the time Mr. Marron runs through friends-and-family service and opens Merchant Oyster Co. to the public in the next week, he’ll have 24 employees between the two restaurants, including a handful that moved here from Chicago. His significant other, who he met when she was cooking for him at The Commoner, Ms. Lewis — now the pastry chef at or, The Whale — is also partner in both restaurants.

As Mr. Marron’s restaurants get their legs, Ms. Lewis will be gearing up to find her own space: Her project is next.

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com

 


First Published October 12, 2017 7:00 AM




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