Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Meeting of the Masters at Marea

Has any chef had more success during the tumultuous last two years than Michael White? During this time all he's managed to accomplish is winning a James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, collect his fourth Michelin Star and oh yeah, recently announced an upcoming project with partner Chris Cannon at the Setai Midtown. In the pantheon of New York's best seafood chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin and Dave Pasternack of Esca are situated at the summit. But with the success of Marea, Michael White fully deserves to be mentioned in that same sentence.

Following in the success of the Northern-Italian themed Alto and the Southern-Italian themed Convivio came Marea, White's take on coastal Italian cuisine. Frankly, it takes some chutzpah to open such a grandiose restaurant on Central Park South like Marea during such a precarious time for restaurants. Fortunately, for both chef White and the rest of us, his gamble paid off with a wonderful new addition to the Manhattan dining scene.

So of virtually all the restaurants I could have chosen for my recent birthday meal, Marea was my first choice. In addition to being given three stars by the New York Times and a star by the Michelin guide in 2010, Marea offered two of the most talked about dishes of the past year: their Ricci, crostini topped with Santa Barbra Sea Urchin, Lardo and Sea Salt; and their Fusilli with Red Wine Braised Octopus and Bone Marrow. Needless to say I was pretty excited when MW told me she got a dinner reservation at Marea.

Situated closely to the Time Warner Center, Marea sits along the south side of Central Park. An incredible bar carved of Egyptian onyx dominates the entrance and practically illuminates the entire room. The dining room is composed of mostly dark wood with high ceilings and red tones from table lamps.

Service was mixed, if not uncoordinated. Although there were no serious incidents I found it puzzling when our waiter failed to know the details of the different tasting menus. After confirming the tasting menus with chef White, MW and I chose the eight-course menu to fully appreciate the chef's talents.

Since we both had work the following day MW and I chose two glasses wines instead of going with the full pairing. We started with a glass of Thalassitis, Gai'a, 2008 from Santorini, Greece. Both MW and I were pleased with how well this dry white paired with the many of our opening seafood courses. As aloof as our waiter was initially, he did a fabulous job pairing a glass of Nero D'Avola Donnata, Alessandro Di Camporeale, 2007 from Sicily, Italy with the fusilli.

Bread service was punctual and offered three different choices: a Sourdough, a Multigrain and an Olive Foccacia. Olive oil, instead of butter was presented on each table to accompany the bread. While the sourdough and multigrain breads were good, the olive foccacia which included whole green olives was by far one of the best breads offered at any restaurant.

Our meal officially started with Marea's famous Ricci, two Crostini topped with creamy Santa Barbara Sea Urchin, a melted layer of Lardo, some Olive Oil and Sea Salt. This dish certainly deserves all the hype that surrounds it, as the fresh and briny sea urchin mixed with the richness of the lardo resulted in the single best bite of the entire meal.

Next was our "first" course. Truth be told, the eight-course meal ended up turning out to be more like ten-courses when all was said and done, not that I was complaining! But I digress. Next came a trio of Crudo: Tonno (bigeye tuna), Polipo (octopus) and Scampi (Ruby Red Shrimp). The Tonno was a cube of Bigeye Tuna on top of an Oyster Crema and Crispy Artichokes. While the tuna tasted fresh and paired well with the oyster crema and artichokes, it paled in comparison to the other two crudo.

The Polipo was thinly sliced Octopus that had been drizzled with Chili Oil, a bit of Lemon and garnished with Parsley. The dish featured incredibly tender octopus that had been kicked up a bit with the addition of the chili oil and was brightened from the lemon and parsley.

The Scampi, though, was our favorite cudo of the evening. Ruby Red Shrimp were simply seasoned with black Hawaiian Volcanic Salt and sat on a Pickled Cucumber. The natural sweetness of the shrimp was accentuated by the Hawaiian salt, and the cucumber provided a nice textural crunch.

Also comprising the first course were two different types of Oysters: Beausoleil from New Brunswick and Kumamoto from Washington. These were accompanied by a Morellino Mignonette and Cucumber-Lemon Vinegar. Both tasted very fresh; the Kumamoto was very creamy while the Beausoleil was brinier, like most East Coast varieties.

From crudo and oysters we moved on to antipasti. The Astice consisted of Nova Scotia Lobster, Burrata, Eggplant al Funghetto and Basil. Lobster and cheese together? While the general rule (so often stressed by Mario Batali) is that you should not pair seafood and cheese together, somehow this dish worked. The creamy and mild burrata cheese seemed destined to be paired with sweet lobster.

Our next antipasto was the Polipo, which included Grilled octopus, Purple Potatoes and Pickled Onions. Grilling the octopus imparted a faint smokiness, which worked well with the potatoes and pickled onions.

For our fourth course we were served a Risotto Nero. A bowl of Squid Ink Risotto was topped with Cuttlefish and Spring Onion, making for a beautiful presentation. I was a bit surprised we were served two consecutive octopus/squid dishes but had no complaints after taking my first bite. The squid ink fortified the seafood flavor of the risotto, and the pieces of cuttlefish and spring onion rounded out this dish.

The fifth course marked the first of our two pasta courses. Michael White's reputation as the "prince of pasta" is well deserved as we enjoyed the texture of the house made pastas. We were first served Orechiette with Red Shrimp, Tomato and Basil. A seemingly simple tomato sauce managed to have a taste as complex as the acidity of the tomato, which emphasized the sweetness of the shrimp.

However, the most anticipated dish of the entire evening was the Fusilli made from Durum Wheat with Red Wine Braised Octopus and Bone Marrow. I can't help but join the choruses of praise for this dish. Everything I have heard about this dish was true... but the pleasantly surprising component was the addition of breadcrumbs which gave a different texture as while adding flavor.

Our last savory course was the Tagliata, a Grilled Creekstone Farms 50 Day Dry-Aged Sirloin and Bone Marrow Panzanella. After the risotto and two pasta courses this generous portion of dry-aged beef almost seemed overkill (the operative word being "almost"). The dry-aged flavor of the beef was prominent, and when eaten with some of the bone marrow panzanella, was simply transcendent.

Next, we were presented with a palette cleanser called a Scorpino. We were given a small bowl that contained a scoop of Lemon Sorbet and was filled with Prosecco. The combination of the bubbly prosecco and tart sorbet was a wonderfully executed palette cleanser preceeding our dessert.

For dessert, we each were served a Gianduja, which was described as Cocoa Nib Crema, Hazelnut Chocolate and Fior di Latte Gelato. While I'm sure there is a more elegant way of describing the dessert, it reminded me of a more sophisticated version of a Ferrero Rocher.

As we waited for our check we were given a plate of petits fours which included four different chocolates: Dark Chocolate and Salty Caramel, Milk Chocolate and Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate Raspberry and White Chocolate and Lavender. All of the chocolates were quite good, and much better than the usual assortment of petits fours, with the dark chocolate and salty caramel being my favorite.

However, the highlights continued after our meal had ended. Our meal coincided with the James Beard Awards, which were being held in New York, so the city was filled with incredible chefs. By the time I heard what MW had whispered to me, chef Eric Ripert and his wife were being seated right next to us. Almost immediately after chef Rick Moonen came over and started talking with him before both were personally greeted by Michael White who had come out of the kitchen. Not even five feet away from us stood three of the country's best seafood chefs.

From the incredible food to the celebrity chef sightings, Marea provided a wonderful evening and a birthday meal I will never forget.

240 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019
(212) 582-5100

To see all our pics please click the flickr link.

Marea on Urbanspoon

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