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June 5, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Marx Foods finds a storefront for its gourmet goods

John Lok/The Seattle Times

John Lok/The Seattle Times

Mark Bittman relies on dried mushrooms from Justin Marx. Food and Wine magazine calls Marx a “food scout extraordinaire.” But until recently, only high-powered chefs and mail-order clients benefited from the kangaroo steaks, leek-horseradish kimchi, Sichuan button flowers, and other finds from his food-procuring adventures.

Marx, a New Jersey native who moved to Seattle several years back, opened a retail Marx Foods shop in Lower Queen Anne in the fall to bolster his family’s previously on-line-only business. It’s a sleek, tech-savvy, but always tastebud-focused love letter to the foods he considers the best of their kinds. The showroom’s lineup shifts slightly every month or so, relying on feedback from the regular tasting panels of employees and aficionados who work through dozens of new samples and sips.

It’s a very modern twist on a fifth-generation family business. For Marx, who seems to take as much pleasure in the humblest dried bean as the fanciest imported spice, the shop was a logical financial move – he already shipped many wholesale products from his Seattle office – but was also about the satisfaction of finding and sharing good food. After years of operating “under the radar,” he now has a profile beyond chefs and hard-core gourmands.

“We just wanted to put roots down deeper in Seattle,” he said. In the longer term, he wants to focus more on small local producers, hoping to become Washington’s champion for artisanal products on a national stage.

At the shop, neat displays of dry goods share space with refrigerator cases filled with cuts of meat from “the exotic mainstream” – wild boar, elk, pheasant, heritage pork, “the things you see on restaurant menus,” in quantities meant for home cooks. Non-perishables range from a wide assortment of dried chiles to celery-like lovage soda syrup to an “inappropriately decadent” maple cream.

If ingredients like candycap mushrooms or venison medallions seem obscure, Marx has assembled an online resource of product information and recipes online at marxfoods.com. Swiping QR codes at the store or browsing the in-store terminals leads shoppers to menus, informational videos, and basic facts. Staffers include recipe developers and an in-house writer and photographer. (Chris Tanghe, Seattle’s newest Master Sommelier, was one of the recipe developers.) It’s part of what Marx sees as a role beyond retail, serving as a “culinary concierge.” He wants to sell products, sure, but it’s clear from watching him taste foods – or seeing the resources dedicated to education – that he also aspires to bring customers along on a cooking adventure.

“A lot of the ingredients are things people haven’t played with, and a lot of them are expensive. We hope that over time, we can take the risk out of that by having our customers know it’s going to be awesome,” he said.

What most shoppers don’t see behind the neat rows of vanilla beans and chili powders is a 400-square-foot test kitchen, about the same size as the retail showroom. Every six weeks or so, Marx gathers about 75 possible new items for the shop and puts them through a taste test. Marx likes to think he makes careful choices whether he’s visiting factories or farmers markets around the world – one three-month span this year took him through New Zealand, Brooklyn, and Japan — but only around 5 percent of the items he brings back earn a place on the shelves.

On one recent panel, some choices were clear: Slices of octopus tentacles tasted wretched when liberated from their tins. The thumbs-downs were unanimous. On the other end, pasta made from spelt flour won points for both flavor and texture. Everyone liked an unrefined honey with a distinct smoky taste from the mesquite flowers the bees had visited. Then, it got harder: Should the yuzu juices be judged on how popular the sweeter varieties might be, or on how accurately they captured the citrus fruit’s floral qualities? (Answer: The latter.) A taste-bud burning hot sauce made with aji chiles seemed too hot to enjoy, with panelists downing bland crackers in a panic after sampling — but some people take pride in buying screamingly hot sauces regardless of their practical uses. They decided to give the sauce a tryout.

Marx himself went with the will of the group. Only two items have escaped the tasting panel’s decision – Rachel’s Ginger Beer, which he would have to keep on hand for himself if he didn’t sell it, and a mint jelly that he thought nostalgic customers remembering roast-lamb dinners would appreciate more than the panelists did (in the end, they didn’t.)

Marx, who remembers visiting livestock yards with his dad and working in the family packing plant, studied business and got his law degree, using both to expand the family business. He followed his now-wife, Tara, to Seattle, opening up a West Coast branch. An early understanding of search-engine optimization and a knack for niches helped make him a favorite restaurant supplier, sending exotics to well-known clients like Alinea in Chicago and The Herbfarm in Woodinville.

In the new showroom, limited space leads to carefully considered decisions about what to stock. He’s got just three olive oils, for instance, rather than the wall of choices available even in good grocery stores. He said he chose the best he could find in each of three flavor categories: floral, buttery, and grassy. Otherwise, in his view, the only keys customers have to choose between brands are the prices and the labels. “Neither of these things are proper indicators of quality, or the qualities of an oil.”

For now, he strives to find foods that aren’t available at other Seattle specialty stores, and he has some of the common local priorities – natural, organic – but taste wins out over all. Deluxe Jams and Scrappy’s Bitters won spots at Marx despite being available in other Seattle shops, judged “the best thing in that category.” An Italian pistachio spread that won a spot on his shelves, like Nutella gone gourmet, is one of the few items containing soy lecithin emulsifier. “We don’t like the ingredients, but we have to stock it because it’s so good,” he said.

Beyond flavor, to Marx, there are no unbreakable rules of food.

“Actually, we have one rule,” he said, pointing to a posted sign by a tray of samples. “No double dipping.”

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