Strings of red paper lanterns, some emblazoned with golden Chinese characters, hang from the ceiling. In the distance, a harmonica tune floats through the late-lunch atmosphere at Melrose Market, the indoor food and design mart also home to Sitka and Spruce and Glasswing. On the white marble countertop of Marseille, a wine bar and eatery named after the French port city, three carefully crafted onigiri Japanese rice balls sit under a bell glass.
Sure, we’ve heard of fusion before, but what is going on here?
“A coincidence,” says Brandin Myett, owner of Marseille. “A Lunar New Year office party planned for February 5th got rescheduled because of the snow. We decided to leave the lanterns up in the meantime.”
Myett opened his new natural wine bar and eatery last spring. The name, he says, is just a reference to something beautiful but rough-around-the-edges, like Marseille. “The French connection is not that important.”
As Melrose Market moves into its next phase of retail and food and drink life under new ownership, Myett’s presence is the kind of sign you can watch to keep an eye on any changes in the shopping and dining destination’s recipe of creative, local business owners mixed with great, sometimes surprising ideas.
The space is helping bring another new idea and a surprise to Capitol Hill. Myett has made room to host Rie Otsuka’s Japanese food pop-up Sankaku during Marseille’s closing days, Monday and Tuesday. Those are also Otsuka’s days off from her job as a server at Capitol Hill staple Oddfellows.
Not long after Sankaku kicked off last month, news broke that Melrose Market had been sold to Regency Centers, a real estate investment trust from Florida that also owns the Broadway Market shopping center. Although Terra Plata chef/owner Tamara Murphy and the buyers say nothing is changing except for the ownership, it’s difficult not to worry a little about the market.
Myett says he’s excited about the new landlords, whom he says he hopes will bring back some new energy, design improvements and most importantly, foot traffic, to the development.
Otsuka, for now, doesn’t look too far ahead. In a couple of months, she and Myett will decide whether to keep Sankaku going. “Someday I hope to have my own business, perhaps a lunch café, on the Hill,” Otsuka says. “But for right now, this is perfect for me.”
On Monday and Tuesday, she gets up at 5 AM to mold onigiri, rice balls stuffed with self-made fillings such as salmon basil shiso or ‘kinoko,’ a mix of mushroom, fried tofu, carrot and snow pea. From 10 to 6, she serves the Japanese lunch staple with side dishes such as cabbage or sweet potato salads or ‘kinpira gobo,’ made from burdock, carrot, and tamari.
“I love onigiri so much,” Otsuka says while taking a short break from the counter, where two men are drinking wine and eating a couple of onigiris for lunch. “Mine are a little different from the traditional style. I mean, in Japan, every home has a different style. My mom’s were always triangular, and so are mine. That’s why I named it Sankaku, which means triangle.”
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The first time they met each other, in a meeting at Marseille early this year, Otsuka and Myett decided to get the pop-up going.
“We know a lot of the same people in that weird Capitol Hill way,” says Myett “but somehow we’d never met each other.”
Matchmaker was Forest Eckley of Melrose Market fashion and design concern Glasswing, who had collaborated with Myett on the design of Marseille. “Forest comes into Oddfellows all the time, and I go to the store all the time. One day, I told him randomly that I dreamt of owning a cafe someday.”
It sounded like a great idea to Myett. He wanted Marseille to be open seven days a week but didn’t have time himself and hiring an employee to open up the shop two days a week from 11 AM to 10 PM was just not in the books. Enter Otsuka. Though she briefly worked in the kitchen in Japan before she moved to the States for art school, Otsuka worked mostly front-of-house jobs for years. She says she’s always wanted to cook and own her own business. “An onigiri café has been my dream for years.”
Though Myett says it is a bonus that Otsuka also sells “a lot of wine,” having a pop-up at Marseille was not just calculations. He says it’s also a way of paying it forward. He and Kari Brunson jumpstarted Juice Box in 2013 through farmers markets and a pop-up at La Bète.
“Thanks to that, we were able to exist and start without much capital investment,” he said. “The point is: I had a lot of help when I started.”