Marea's High-End Highs
Peering around Marea's capacious dining room is like trying to identify all the caricatures on the wall at the Minetta Tavern. Everyone is someone, but I can't name more than a few—especially while distracted by a crostini topped with a buttery lump of sea urchin, cloaked in the thinnest membrane of half-melted lardo. One Monday night at the new Italian-seafood spot, chef Michael White and owner Chris Cannon were bustling around their 125-seat room on Central Park South, schmoozing VIPs of every stripe. In one corner, the Daily News' famously un-anonymous critic, Danyelle Freeman, was tending to a steady stream of visitors. At a four-top in the center of the room was Ed Levine, the well-known food writer and founder of Serious Eats, also the focus of much attention.
Meanwhile, the men at the table next to us were discussing exactly how many hundreds of millions the Emir of Kuwait nets yearly, until one asked the other, "How many Bentleys do you have?" The answer: two—"One black, one gray, but the black one is kept in the Hamptons."
Marea is one of the most ambitious restaurants to open in some time, surely the loftiest spot so far this year. The menu is the creation of chef White (also of Alto and Convivio); he and Cannon are clearly aiming to launch into the ranks of the four-starred, but with a tiny nod to the economic times, such as the $34 two-course lunch, casual dress code, and the option of ordering pasta as an entrée.
The expansive dining room is stately, but not stuffy, with the burble of conversation getting loud when the space is full, which it usually is. Midcentury-modern squared brown chairs look like the office variety, but turn out to be infinitely more comfortable, and the windowsills are lined with silver-dipped seashells. Walls are either stark white or paneled with the super-shiny, lacquered wood that you might find on a yacht, which is where you might find the clientele, too. But what matters is that there is some very, very serious cooking going on at Marea—and for the boat-less rest of us, it's worth saving for a special occasion.
At $89, the dinner prix fixe allows you either crudo or an antipasto, a small primo portion of pasta, a main dish, and a dessert. That's certainly not cheap, but it generally ends up making more sense than ordering à la carte. If you plan on ordering primo and secondo courses, as is the Italian custom—with at least one other extra, like wine, crudo, or dessert—you're going to be spending just under $100 per person anyway. To experience Marea on something that approaches the cheap, go for the lunch deal, or just drop in for a pasta.
Those pastas are not only the most reasonably priced dishes on the menu ($17–$27), they're also so beautiful it's hard to believe they were crafted by human hands. Each piece is so lovely and singular that you find yourself staring at them the way parents marvel at the toes and fingers of a newborn.
White became known for his homemade pastas at Alto and Convivio, and he's only gotten better with time. Fusilli, which translates to "little springs," are exactly that here—perfectly cooked, springy, loose spirals. That pasta is served with a vibrant tomato sauce, enriched with tiny, gushy nuggets of bone marrow along with braised tendrils of octopus that echo the shape of the fusilli. As a whole, the dish is astonishing. A neat heap of spaghetti is generously slicked with a vividly orange sauce of puréed sea urchin, topped with crab, an exercise in oceanic excess. Ridged rigatoni catches its sauce—a delicate, pink ragù of diced shrimp and squid—inside its hollow center. There are three non-seafood pastas to choose from; the best of the bunch is garganelli in a simple pork sausage ragù. The tubular egg noodles are so fresh they almost feel alive under your teeth.
The pastas are the heart of Marea, but before you sink into their carby glory, there are crudo and antipasti you'll want to try if you're going for the full, multicourse experience. The antipasti are uniformly good, particularly the squid stuffed with lobster and a wonderful mackerel tart—neat slices of the oily fish with salsa cruda on a thin, circular crisp. However, if you're choosing between an antipasto and a crudo, the latter is more likely to make your jaw drop.
Of the crudo, avoid the striped marlin, as it's dangerously overfished. Instead, go for the mild, tender cuttlefish, cut into long, white strands and served with perfect vegetable brunoise (knife skills, bonus!). Tiny dices of spot prawns are slippery and sweet, partnered with baby chanterelles and pistachios. Although the langoustine crudo is very fine, I'd avoid it unless you heat your house in the winter by burning money. It involves a scant two bites of the crustacean's tail, while the head, with the claws, stares at you from its decorative perch on the plate. We actually tried to crack the claws and eat them, but finally decided that all the crunching and sucking was probably inappropriate, like bringing bean dip to a potluck at Thomas Keller's.
After the fireworks of the first courses, the main fish dishes came as a bit of a letdown. There's nothing at all wrong with these offerings—each one features pristine fish, cooked and seasoned with precision and skill—but there's something by-the-books about them. The only secondo that approaches the gleeful deliciousness of what came before is the wild salmon poached in duck fat, with fava beans and chanterelles—a combination that's pretty much guaranteed to be outstanding. The salmon skin was crunchy, and the coral-colored mass of fish was translucent in the center, suffused with richness. We also liked the halibut with clams, but the black bass with artichokes and roasted rouget with cranberry beans left us unmoved, if satisfied.
It's easy to find fault with opulence right now, and hard to thoroughly enjoy a restaurant populated with people who have to distinguish between their Bentleys. But Michael White is gunning for the top of the heap—and why not? We might achieve world peace by enacting the Lysistrata, substituting White's pastas for sex.
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