People keep talking about the changing restaurant industry, how diners only want burgers or pizza, how they no longer want to pay top dollar for a high-end restaurant meal. Daniel Boulud opens a burger joint, and new restaurants hedge their bets by putting “bar” in front of their name. It makes sense that, when economic times are tough, comfort food would rule, but it doesn’t seem to be an ironclad way to bring in customers. And I can’t see the restaurant world thriving if everyone starts serving the same menu of bar food.
In contrast to the rumored death of the upscale restaurant, when I went to Marea, Michael White and Chris Cannon’s new Italian seafood restaurant, on a recent Wednesday night, I found a full house. Marea is making people show up and spend, even on a Wednesday night in the middle of summer, and there is good reason why.
The restaurant occupies the old San Domenico space on Central Park South, and the contrast between the spaces shows that Marea has successfully updated the recipe for posh dining. The partners created an upscale, splurge-worthy place, banishing all the stiffness and formality usually associated with a destination restaurant. A few years ago I went to San Domenico, and it felt like both diners and staff were going through the motions, relying on the memory of the place rather than its current incarnation. The service was formal, the atmosphere moody and the food only passable. Marea is different. You’re going to like it. As you enter, the long bar on your left makes it clear that you are welcome to enjoy drinks and plates at the bar – no need to be formally seated to try the food. Stepping down into the dining room, you see dark wood floors offsetting crisp white cloth covered tables, the wide windows’ sheer curtains drawn against the park view. The style is oceanliner chic – cool, open, somewhat impersonal. But the feeling in the room is warm. I was struck by the lack of pretense; people were openly enjoying themselves.
Sounds of happy chatter came up against those of clattering forks. I saw a large party laughing with their server, and over the course of the night I saw Chef White stopping at different tables to check in on his diners, making sure they were happy. This is not a gastronomic temple with a chef deigning to serve you and servers who can’t be bothered to smile.
On the sommelier’s recommendation, we drank a Luigi Maffini Kratos (2007) that was clean and fruity and enhanced the dishes without overpowering them. In fact, the large wine-list is devoted to wines that enhance the seafood menu, with many wines served by the glass and a huge selection of roses.
We started with several crudo that show the kitchen’s dedication to serving the most pristine seafood possible. We shared razor clams with peperoncino and fennel, served on open clamshells, the chew of the clams offset by citrusy notes and a bit of spice ($13). Clean, vivid tasting geoduck clams with fresh chilies and lemon ($18) followed. Then, we had wild mackerel under a mound of caviar and a puddle of mussel cream topping thin slices of cucumber ($19).The brilliant flavors and contrasting textures burst in your mouth: fleshy fish, salty dots of caviar, and cool cucumber. (The menu offers this preparation for branzino, but it was done with mackerel the night I was there.)
We also had the spot prawns, so fresh it was clear they were recently squirming ($16). The prawn was left alone to just be itself, dusted only with black sea salt. Perfect. Totten Inlet oysters from Washington ($3.50 per) were huge, glistening, and plump—almost obscene really—with hint of brine and no overt fishiness.
For the antipasti, we shared a dish that takes the obligatory tomato, basil, and mozzarella to a new heights. White combines perfectly cooked Nova Scotia lobster, with creamy burrata, eggplant al funghetto (cooked in the manner you would mushrooms), and cherry tomatoes brightened with Thai basil ($24). The lobster (a lovely amount of it) lays its sweetness against the rich, salty burrata and lets the other sharp flavors take turns stepping out. The Thai basil has a stronger but less licorice flavor than ordinary basil, and the few quarters of ripe cherry tomatoes sweetened the plate.
While these starters were memorable, Marea serves a pasta dish that will go down in the annals of eating. The fusilli with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow ($25) represents the chef’s genuine talent in balancing both flavor and texture. The velvety sauce was rich but not heavy. The pasta and the octopus were expertly cooked, just enough so that they stopped your teeth as you bit in, and a smattering of breadcrumbs gave the dish just a bit more interest. And a simple thing like the shape of long twisting fusilli mirroring the octopus legs makes this dish truly memorable. Not overly complicated or stylized, just a pleasure to eat.
But the juxtaposition of textures and flavors, so well done in the majority of the dishes, misfired in one. The east coast black bass was plated over a tangle of rather bland artichokes, drizzled with salsa verde, a few capers and pignoli crocante, a sort of pine nut brittle ($39). The dish just didn’t come together well, which was striking in comparison with the other dishes that had such lusty flavors.
We weren’t disappointed for long, though, because dessert knocked us out. The pastry chef, Heather Bertinetti, deftly incorporates the interplay of textures seen on the main menu. The gianduja, a layered confection with crisp hazelnut chocolate on the bottom covered with a topcoat of cocoa nib crema, was served with milky vanilla gelato to cut the richness ($14). The vanilla bean panna cotta with lemon verbena sauce and blueberry sorbet ($13) was among the best I’ve ever had. Butter crumbs were strewn underneath the silky panna cotta for an extra wallop of clever crunch. I’m not a huge fan of panna cotta, but this one forced me to rethink that position.
Six weeks after opening, the place ran remarkably smoothly, including the attentive and friendly service. There were, however, a few indications that this is a new restaurant. For example, some of the dishes came out of the kitchen disjointedly, with long spells between courses. But no one, including servers, bussers, and hostesses, seemed to be rushing around or overwhelmed, despite that all the tables were full so soon after opening. Based on my night, I’d say Marea makes a convincing argument that diners want more than comfort food in the current climate. The restaurant’s food makes it right for special occasions, and the feeling makes it a place that you want to visit even on a Wednesday night. There will always be plenty of places for a great burger, but some nights you want more and you want it to be worth it. Marea delivers.