The New York Times: Culture, Staged on a Plate
RESTAURANTS | MAREA
  • NYT top pick
  • ★★★

Culture, Staged on a Plate

 

THIS recession’s over. At least that’s the message the knights in white broadcloth are sending out at Marea, the elegant Italianate restaurant Chris Cannon and Michael White opened this spring in the space on Central Park South that used to be San Domenico. Cue the prosecco. Take a look at that Dover sole!

 

Here is Sumner Redstone scowling at shadows. There is Henry Kravis sitting like Dorian Gray. Everyone between them looks low-slung and comfortable in butter-soft chairs, 125 of them, with the M104 bus swinging by the plate-glass windows up front, street lights shifting into red against the distant darkness of Central Park. It is all very pleasant and warm: rosewood on the walls; silver-dipped conches and nautiluses on the window sills. That bar back is honey onyx.

 

Restaurants are culture as sure as music or paintings. They say something about who we are. So never mind the bold-faced names, those old familiar faces. Civilized people on the subway home from the Met talk about opera, not who has seats in the parterre box. Marea says, settle down. When the market was low, we spent like crazies and now look wise. You like to eat? Watch what is going to happen to you.

 

The very first item on the menu at Marea is ricci, a piece of warm toast slathered with sea urchin roe, blanketed in a thin sheet of lardo, and dotted with sea salt. It offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time — a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined. The salt and fat give way to primal sweetness and combine in deeply agreeable ways. The feeling lingers on the tongue and vibrates through the body. Not bad at $14 a throw — and there are two on each plate.

 

Mr. White arrived in New York in 2002 as the chef at Fiamma in SoHo, and showed himself to be an extraordinary practitioner of pasta. (At the unlovely Vento in the meatpacking district, he made a mean veal trotter.) Later, he teamed up with Mr. Cannon to make Alto a shrine to northern Italian food and L’Impero, now Convivio, a gallery for the best of that nation’s south. He cooks Italian food as if it were purely American: big and bold.

 

While Marea is a seafood restaurant, it is not one that seeks to place a divide between that which swims and that which walks. It is perhaps more accurate to call it a restaurant inspired by seafood — but by no means in thrall to it.

 

Halibut arrives with a little more lardo mixed in with its retinue of Manila clams, sweet corn and spigarelli (like a mild broccoli rabe), and a chili oil that might as well be fresh-squeezed sopressata. Fusilli come with a sauce made of octopus braised in red wine — and thickened by bone marrow. The marrow would be gild on a lily if it weren’t so flavorful, a more neutral demi-glace that is the perfect pairing for (who knew!) octopus.

 

And the restaurant’s one beef offering, a sirloin from the terrific Creekstone Farms outfit, dry-aged 50 days, grilled rare and served with more of that marrow cut into a bread salad, would do epic battle with the beef at any steakhouse in town.

 

But we get ahead of ourselves. The menu at Marea is divided into sections; diners may order a four-course meal for $89, plus perhaps a few add-ons for the table. That ricci, for instance, or a zeppole made of seaweed, shrimp and chickpeas that ought to be what people get when they order zeppole at street fairs.

 

There is as well a crudo menu — and a crudo bar along the restaurant’s east side, with seats for 20. It is not part of the prix fixe, but a geoduck clam with fresh chilies and lemon helps explain in one bite why men would dive amid huge swells to retrieve the things from the angry Pacific. You might also visit with the tuna and creamy (though creamless) oyster crema, with crisp bits of artichoke, or a hunk of striped bass acting as pack animal for a load of sturgeon caviar, drizzled in mussel vinaigrette.

 

Mr. White treats antipasti as character studies. Knuckles of lobster arrive commingled with torn hunks of burrata cheese, the creaminess of both (literal in the case of the cheese, figurative on the part of the lobster) melding into eggplant cooked down as if it were mushrooms, with a grassy hit of basil on top. Monkfish cheeks orbit a slow-poached egg with a loamy mushroom ragù.

 

Worthwhile pastas, in addition to the fusilli, include a rich spaghetti with crab, sea urchin and basil. There is sweet cavatelli with red shrimp, controne-bean purée and rosemary, a loose cotechino sausage cut into risotto, silky with melted cod belly. You may pass on the seppia and shrimp ragù, mysterious as it is; cuttlefish, also part of an unexciting grilled main course, are not up to the treatments Mr. White puts them through.

 

The main courses —secondi di pesce, the menu calls them — are the restaurant’s weakness. After the brilliance of the appetizer course and the winning flavors of those pastas, it is difficult to maintain focus on an architectural marvel involving porcini-dusted sea scallops. Adriatic seafood soup is laden with what might be the entire window display at Citarella. Too much.

 

Better to hit shore for the steak (or a crisp roast guinea hen with asparagus) or upgrade into the whole-fish treatments: a few simply grilled langoustines, for instance, paired with a salsa verde, or that Dover sole with lemon. You want a simple sentence after the complex ones.

 

Wine? You ought to have lots. Mr. Cannon has, with Francesco Grosso, conceived a fascinating, lengthy list. It may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives: lots of bracing whites heavy on coastal terroir, light reds good with fish. If you follow the Mark Bittman principle, which argues that the best way to order wine is to give the sommelier a price point and a challenge to match the bottle to the table’s order, you ought to do well. Service at the restaurant is superb: helpful, friendly and apron-clad rather than black-tied and imperious. (Also knowing: I was dining anonymously, but was recognized at the door.)

 

Heather Bertinetti is Marea’s pastry chef. She doesn’t fool around. Hers is a rich torrone gelato with black cocoa cake; she makes a mean crisp-polenta number with blackberry compote. Order the affogato, though, for maximum wow: a float of zabaglione gelato with small pours of espresso and amaro on top. This is iced coffee for the smart set, fantastic to eat and drink.

 

Marea is an ambitious restaurant, more so than any Mr. Cannon and Mr. White have opened. It is also in many ways a casual one, unfussy, as welcoming as a luxe clubhouse. It is not cheap nor meant to be. Art in Manhattan can be like that. Life is balance. You read the notices for “Bye Bye Birdie” on Broadway? Better dinner here than tickets there, plus what you’d spend at Sardi’s for cannelloni and vodka.

 

Marea

★★★

240 Central Park South (Broadway), Columbus Circle; (212) 582-5100, marea-nyc.com.

ATMOSPHERE A casually elegant room with quiet self-confidence features warm lighting, luxe materials, a gauzy view. 

SOUND LEVEL The tinkle of silver on china, an occasional roar of laughter.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Ricci; lobster and burrata; slow-poached egg; fusilli; spaghetti; Dover sole; steak; langoustines.

WINE LIST A wide-ranging, diverse and sporadically affordable list of wines, many Italian, that match well with a menu that is largely seafood.

PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $8 to $21; pastas, $24 to $32; main courses, $35 to $47. Four-course prix fixe, $89.

HOURS Lunch, Monday to Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

RESERVATIONS Recommended for the main dining room.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Steps to dining room; wheelchair users can enter restaurant through a side door. The bar is on street level.

WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

 

Original article here