Situated on Central Park South next to Columbus Circle, just one block from three of Manhattan's flagship offerings, Marea is a Michelin two-star Italian restaurant with a focus on the sea. This is reflected in both its food and ambiance. The space itself is reminiscent of the interior of a high-end cruise ship, with dark, polished wood, conch shells, and the same tableside flowers and crisp white napkins you'd expect to find on a yacht.
Our reason for choosing Marea as the first outing of 2017 was more practical than aspirational; a friend of ours who was visiting New York wanted to go out to dinner, but preferred prix fixe to chef's tasting, and had a penchant for Italian food versus more esoteric options. Since it had already been on my hit list of venues to visit, Marea seemed like an obvious choice.
First things first: to me, Marea is more of a power lunch or business deal dinner spot than a destination restaurant. The service we had was quite satisfactory, but distinctively low-touch. Questions about the origins of a particular piece of silverware or plating, fair game at Marea's peer restaurants, went unanswered. Additionally, I always enjoy being able to engage a sommelier throughout the course of a meal, but ours was nowhere to be found after tasting us and making the initial pours. This was mildly disappointing because he carried a wealth of knowledge on both bottles. Looking back, I understand it better. Marea's clientele, at least on the night I dined there, seemed to be more large group outings that don't want to be nagged every five minutes about the preparation of their dishes or about how their glass of wine has developed over the course of their meal. It's not a food snob's restaurant.
So Marea doesn't win any service points, and that's fine. I wasn't expecting the full pamper treatment of, say, Manresa, which is still the finest service experience I've had thus far. One unusual similarity between the two, though, was the quality of their drinking glasses. Manresa's are bespoke, cylindrical, and reminiscent of Kinch's Asian influences; Marea's are well-weighted, subtly concave, and easy to grip.
Marea's water glasses felt solid in the hand and stood out aesthetically (in a good way).
Our entire party had studied the menu extensively before dining, and had all agreed to do the four-course prix fixe so we could sample each other's dishes. With that being said, I wasn't letting anyone else get a nibble on my assaggio di tre crudo. After all, there were so many appealing options that I would have been hard-pressed to pick just one.
The crudo turned out to be one of those good news, bad news situations. My first bite was the sgombro, their pacific jack mackerel with pine nuts and a carrot-based reduction sauce. The dish was fine, but nothing to write home about. The mackerel itself tasted fresh, although nothing like the rich horse mackerel served at Nakazawa. The texture of the nut and crispy strands of lime on top of the fish was creative; I still haven't decided if I liked it or not, but the fact that I'm still pondering the dish a week later is only a good thing.
The tonno was by far the biggest letdown of the night. On paper, all of the requisite components for a delightful dish were there. The crunch of the sunchoke paired beautifully with the fresh, crisp cucumber, which was balanced perfectly by the delicate oyster crema. However, these side actors had no leading role to support. The tuna itself, while visually stunning, was so lean as to be flavorless and bland. I could taste the literal freshness of the fish, as if I had been served a small cube of water.
As anyone who's taken a writing class knows, when you have three points, you put your weakest second and your strongest last. Boy, did Marea do this. I fully expected the branzino to be the best of the crudo menu, but I couldn't have predicted just how good it would be. The bass melted in my mouth, and about a quarter of a second later the sturgeon caviar and mussel vinaigrette hit at the same time in a sublime moment of beauty. I had one of those physical, visceral, and rare reactions where your eyes close as you struggle to cling onto the elusive, effervescent moment that is when your ingredients come together perfectly. A smile broke out on my face, and Rus made a comment about how he already knew he ordered the wrong crudo based on watching me eat my branzino. This is a top-tier dish. It highlights what happens when you take high-quality ingredients and combine them in thoughtful yet simple ways. The mussel vinaigrette perfectly complemented the caviar. It was gentle and reminded me of a creme fraiche.
Upon reflection, the only negative thing I have to say about the branzino is that it seems a little out of place at Marea. Nothing about it jumped out at me as Mediterranean. And that's totally fine by me, because I appreciate delicious courses. It just didn't really segue or transition into the pasta course, which jarred me a little.
Branzino: striped bass, sturgeon caviar, and mussel vinaigrette. A top-tier dish, through and through.
Our sommelier poured us both bottles of wine during the waitstaff's presentation of the crudo. This was, needless to say, poorly timed. Our white was a 2014 Rudi Pichler Terrassen Grüner Veltliner. I'm in love with Austrian Grüner Velts, and this one turned out to be quite creative. It wasn't as sweet as a typical Grüner Veltliner would be, lacking the distinctive melon taste. Instead, I got green apple with tinges of flint and granite. It was a very appropriate choice for our crudo.
On the red side, we traveled to the Southern Rhone with a 2012 Chateau de Tours Côtes-du-Rhône, which is a blend of grenache, syrah, and cinsault. This was a beautiful choice to accompany the pasta and seafood of Marea; it tasted mildly of berries with a slight hint of spice, but didn't at all overpower the food.
Sitting happily with our glasses of white and red wine poured, we examined our pasta dishes. Franklin and I both ordered the fusilli, Marea's famous al dente pasta with tender octopus and rich bone marrow. There's nothing I can say about this dish that hasn't already been written; it simply makes sense as a dish. However, as I started to split my dish to give some to Rus in exchange for some of his strozzapreti (an excellent choice by itself, pairing crab and urchin), I noticed that I had exactly three pieces of octopus in my dish. I glanced over at Franklin's plate; it was teeming with tentacles. I had to embarrassingly ask Franklin if I could steal a piece of his octopus meat, just so Rus wouldn't have a plate of plain pasta.
How does a detail like this fall through the cracks at a restaurant like Marea? How does a person get a pasta dish with three small pieces of meat? I understand that mistakes are unavoidable. We had a prime seating time on a long weekend, so I'm sure the kitchen felt rushed. But the entire restaurant staff is a team. When the line cooks make a slight oversight, it's up to the servers to catch and correct it. It definitely soured my experience. The octopus was of such quality that its texture reminded me of steak; I would have loved to have eaten some more so as to wrap my head around such an interesting preparation. If only.
A fusilli with little octopus.
For the secondi, I ordered the anatra, Marea's duck breast entree. It was cooked beautifully, minus a thick layer of fat on top, and portioned generously. The squash purée was a perfect pair to the meat, although I would have been fine without the giant dollop of farro in the middle of the dish, which somehow tasted blander than brown rice and made the dish a bit of a chore to finish. I tried some of Rus's scallop, which was tender but just the slightest bit rubbery, and Franklin's swordfish, which was incredibly tender and reminded me of a well-prepared sea bass.
Dessert-wise, Rus and I again went for the mutual compromise, splitting the affogato and the semifreddo al torroncino. Both were high-quality desserts, with the affogato being a satisfying blend of sweet and savory, and the semifreddo being rich but not overpowering. Yes, Marea is best known for their seafood, but their desserts are a pleasant surprise, with the level of quality I'd expect from a top Italian restaurant.
Affogato, with the reflection of our Chateau de Tours in the background.
Would I come back to Marea? Certainly, although it would be very context-dependent. I would stop by here for lunch in a heartbeat. I'd sit at the bar and order a crudo, a pasta, and a glass of wine. I'd also come here with a large group that wants to eat high-quality food, engage in banter, and leave satisfied and full. But for $200 per person after wine, tax, and tip, Marea isn't the first place I'd recommend for a dining experience. The service and ambiance simply weren't at the level I'd want when looking for a high-end, no-holds-barred dinner.
With that said, I think Marea is fairly rated at two Michelin stars. The branzino and fusilli were both flavor combinations that I'd never tasted before. Even the preparation of the duck breast was a step forward, with the squash purée being a common variation that nonetheless showed creative thinking. Michael White is doing things that you can't find at other restaurants, and I strongly value that. On the other hand, though, there were some pretty big misses that would never have happened at some of Marea's competitors, such as The Modern. Walking out, I felt satiated, but not satisfied. I'd seen what they were capable of doing with food, and was a little frustrated that they weren't able to apply that ability and finesse across all their dishes.