Having dined at Convivio the day before I’d planned on visiting Marea for lunch on New Years Eve even before my server at Per Se suggested it as the “best” Italian in the city – high praise indeed for a city that also contains Babbo, Scarpetta, and Alto. Having read great things about the Fusilli everywhere from the Times to Chowhound and Food&Wine to GQ I knew at least one dish I’d be experiencing but also wanted to go in with an open mind to experience whatever else Chef White and his team had to offer.
Arriving moments before my noon reservation the bar was already quite full and had a lot of energy – an energy that nicely flowed into the main dining room where the crowd was a mix of young and old and the theme felt very aquatic without “trying too hard.” Lines were clean, tables were nicely arranged, and everyone was smiling while the view allotted from the tables was excellent with the hustle-bustle of locals, tourists, and horse-drawn carriages traveling to and from Central Park.
Taking my seat I was greeted by my server, a young man who noted to me later that he had previously worked in some capacity at Per Se when I told him they’d recommended Marea quite strongly – he was a good server albeit a tad less refined than I’d have expected and certainly not as personable as my server at Alto or Convivio. Water was filled and after browsing the menu for a moment I opted against the tasting menu so that I could cherry-pick the items most interesting. Orders placed I sat back and listened to the forgettable overhead music and watched as Chef White himself emerged from the kitchen to shave white truffles over the risotto of a man clearly known to the house. On his way back to the kitchen Chef White stopped by multiple tables to say hello, including mine, and was quite pleasant and appreciative when I told him I’d been to Convivio the day before because of the great meal at Alto on my previous trip. In retrospect, knowing Michael was in the kitchen I should have changed my order and went with the tasting.
Arriving before the first dish was a selection of breads to go with that same beautiful olive oil that is offered at Convivio and Alto – on first pass the breads included a chewy and acidic sourdough and a relatively non-descript poppy seed white. Later visits revealed another bread, however – and absolutely sublime Olive and Garlic Forcaccia with a texture like a Detroit-style pizza crust and great top notes of garlic acting as a foil to the potent whole olives. Watching the bread man walk the room I realized quickly why this option hadn’t been available on the first turn – he ran out every single time he came out with it.
To begin my proper meal I had inquired as to whether one of the more famous items from the dinner menu could be made at lunch. Without even checking with the kitchen my server confirmed that it certainly could be, either in a full $14 or half $8 portion. Selecting the single taste as I wanted to maximize my experience I was soon delivered a single “Ricci” – Sea Urchin, Lardo, Sea Salt on toasted bread. Featuring exactly what was promised the small dish arrived and featured creamy fresh urchin topped with glassy and thin lardo and textural sea salt on a toasty piece of bread. Simple, delicious – a great example of what high end ingredients can do when accented simply. I’m not sure that $8 a piece is exactly a bargain for this dish but it is definitely something worth tasting if you love uni.
The first item from my $19/course tasting was CALAMARI – shrimp and spaghetti squash filled, tomato compote, parmigiano-reggiano. Small in portion but potent in taste I have to say that this dish was good but not “great.” While the calamari was perfectly fresh and the tentacles just mildly pan crisped, I personally felt the tomato compote significantly overwhelmed the nuances of the shrimp/spaghetti squash stuffing and could have used a bit less acidity in order to let the sweeter aspects of the dish shine. I had originally thought twice about this dish but opted for it when I realized the target of my desire from the online menu was not on the current menu.
More olive bread followed the Calamari and mere moments passed before I was brought my first pasta - SPAGHETTI - fresh cut semolina pasta, crab, santa barbara sea urchin, basil. For those who haven’t noticed, the combination of crab, uni, and pasta is more or less a guaranteed order for me – Alto, Convivio, Scarpetta, Marea (and later A Voce.) Cooked slightly past al dente this dish unfortunately suffered the same fate as the Calamari in that the seafood tastes were again overwhelmed by the acidity of the tomatoes and the flavors that did peak through were only a small degree of brine. Having expected Marea to put out a superior version to that of Convivio I have to say I liked both the pasta and the sauce/protein admixture better over at Tudor Place. Annoyingly, when my server asked me how I liked the dish and I commented that the tomatoes really overwhelmed the seafood his only reply was “oh, well, a lot of folks really seem to like that one – you’ll love the next one, though.”
A short time passed before my next dish arrived and, well, my server was right – as are all the critics. Titled FUSILLI - durum wheat pasta, red wine braised octopus, bone marrow this dish has become a signature for the restaurant and is rivaled by few as the most unique and impressive pasta dishes I’ve tasted. Flawlessly al dente noodles and octopus with top notes of alcohol and cherries with nearly the same texture simply melt into a smooth and creamy taste that really has to be experienced to be described. Pulling the dish together is a creamy and exceedingly non-acidic sauce with salty unctuousness of marrow providing a beautiful foil to the flavors of tomatoes, basil, and parsley.
Finishing the small but hearty pasta courses I declined coffee but decided to browse the dessert menu given my previous experiences with Heather Bertinetti’s confections – and lo and behold, bread pudding. Entitled Budino Di Pane – Ginger Beer Bread Pudding, Poached Quince, Caramel Gelato this dish was nothing like previous budinos or bread puddings, but rather three small heavily ginger/molasses accented cakes sitting atop rum poached quince and ginger-quince puree with a side of bitter-sweet caramel gelato and a crispy tuille. Good, but not as delectable as the desserts at other White restaurants and certainly not as tasty as the Bouchon Ginger Cupcake I’d pass on this one in the future and get something chocolate.
Wrapping up the meal and delivered with the bill were four mignardises; a dense chocolate cookie with chocolate ganache, two tangy raspberry butter cookies, and a moist and luscious carrot cake that I’d have preferred as my main dessert course – the cream cheese icing was superb.
Settling the bill my server bid me farewell and happy eating (we had discussed my other plans for the trip) and a good time at the hockey game – he also told me I was “either crazy or brave” to be heading downtown for New Years (after experiencing it I’d say stupid.) Walking out of the restaurant I have to say I was a tad let down – but perhaps I’d expected too much. Pricey for the small portions I can certainly say that Marea is not the deal that Convivio is, but I’d also argue that the food and experience aren’t as refined or tasty either. Still new I’d say Marea has a lot of potential but they definitely need to avoid being pigeonholed as a one trick pony – even if the one trick is that sublime Fusilli – a dish you could make a whole meal of along with the olive bread.