Whether he’s busy working the line or dreaming up new cocktails, it’s clear that restaurateur Mark Hanson infuses his culinary vision into every part of Marx Fusion Bistro & Bar. The restaurant, which opened in 2002, reflects not only his travels and interests, but his easy demeanor and drive to create a high-quality and comfortable experience for his guests.
“The restaurant has always centered on Mark’s vision,” says sous-chef Josh Meyer, who has been with Marx Fusion Bistro & Bar for 12 years. “Mark has fostered an environment of learning while working ... [Ultimately] everything goes through him, whether it’s approving a new wine, a new vendor, a dish or a cool cocktail. From the glassware to the food to the lighting, it all comes back to him.”
Hanson has been in the restaurant business since graduating from culinary school in the 1980s. He has opened and owned restaurants in New York, the Caribbean and the St. Croix Valley. Hanson’s explorations can be seen in the constant rotation of specials, which are updated daily and presented verbally to diners by the wait staff.
“Our [tableside] specials allow us to interact with the customers and provide a more intimate experience,” Hanson says. “It breaks down the barrier between guests and wait staff, and allows people to ask questions they might have felt scared to ask.”
“Our menu is a mix of contemporary ideas, and includes a lot of steak, seafood and pasta,” he adds. “It’s a little bit of everything—you name it, we do it.”
While the flavors and inspiration for the dishes are grounded in providing variety to the guests, the kitchen staff also aims to hit the mark with an excellent experience, every time.
“We pride ourselves on flavor, innovation and consistency, and we want to make sure it’s great every time. We don’t budge on that,” Meyer says. “Everything has its purpose.”
Many of the dishes have become favorites among Stillwater residents. The walleye dumplings, for instance, are considered a signature appetizer. Based on Caribbean street food that Hanson came across in his travels, the dish boasts more than 15 ingredients, among them walleye, sweet potatoes, paprika and habanero.
Another highlight is the bistro’s beef tenderloin, lightly seasoned with pepper and olive oil and topped with caramelized onions, fennel and a bordelaise sauce, is made in-house. All entrées are served with roasted seasonal vegetables and a carrot purée that often prompts awestruck reviews from diners.
“People are always surprised that you can get so much flavor out of such simple ingredients,” Meyer says. “We don’t try to over-complicate it. We keep things simple.”
While the menu does rotate dishes, a newly added dish goes through a lot of work to make sure it’s completely “bulletproof,” as Meyer describes it. All specials are seasonal and use what’s available locally. For example, a local farmer might come in with mushrooms at 4:30 p.m., and with some quick work, those mushrooms will be incorporated into that evening’s menu.
As far as drinks go, the most famous signature cocktail is the blueberry basil martini. Combining fresh blueberries, a pinch of basil, fresh limes, ice, blueberry vodka, triple sec and soda, the drink offers a light and sweet libation that’s very popular among those who frequent the bistro.
Another highly sought-after beverage is the Marx Manhattan, which features blueberries, cherry-infused Maker’s Mark whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters; its ruby-red color lends a dramatic flair.
For those looking for beer or wine, the bar is stocked with local brews and bottles, such as Lift Bridge and Fulton, or Naomi pinot noir and Round Bar chardonnay.
“Our kitchen is unique because we work very closely together,” says Meyer, speaking both metaphorically and literally, as the bistro’s kitchen features close quarters. “We’re all here for each other. You’ll often find Mark helping the dishwasher at the end of the night instead of leaving early.”
“We always look forward to tomorrow and welcome the new restaurants coming in to help keep us on our toes,” he adds.
Hanson shares this enthusiasm for keeping things fresh and innovative. “I love competition; it brings a lot of focus and energy to the area, and that’s good for everybody,” he says. “Cooking has always been a great creative and artistic expression for me, and I love the satisfaction of creating.”
Looking to the future, Hanson has a lot of ideas, and is eager to pursue opening up a boutique hotel in the area. “I’m always keeping my ears and eyes open for the next opportunity,” he says. “I believe you should wear out, not rust out. As long as I’m still healthy enough to do what I’m doing, I’ll keep banging away at it.”