Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eating the Buzz - Marea, NYC

 About a year ago, the new chef on the street was Michael White and his baby was an Italian spot in the posh Columbus Circle/Central Park corner. It's name: Marea.

We'd had reservations to eat there the last time we went to the City, but, feeling more sustainable and Greenwich Village, forfeited our reservation to eat at Dan Barber's Blue Hill instead. This time, we made it a point to go for it and save up for the $91, four-course prix fixe fare. What a meal. No wonder it's a James Beard finalist this year.

The dining room at Marea.
The four-course menu includes one of the three starter selections (either crudo (sashimi-style sliced fish with accoutrements), antipasto, or a selection of delicate oysters with garnish). The diner then chooses either a pasta or risotto for the second course, a fish dish or meat for third course and a dessert or cheese.

For the prime location and the fine dining experience, $91 is a fair price for an above-average dinner.

I started with an antipasto of poached yellowtail with yogurt, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, dried bell peppers and hamachi roe. I'd never considered fish with yogurt before, but the marriage was sweet and successful, matching the buttery fish with the tang of the yogurt and earthy mushrooms.

Poached yellowtail with cucumber, yogurt, mushrooms and red pepper.
Cliff ordered the grilled octopus antipasti, a hearty cut of the cephalopod, cooked perfectly at the thicker ends, but charred slightly at the tips. I don't fault them - this is a hard piece of meat to cook, especially to grill.

Grilled octopus antipasto.
I like to order things at restaurants like Marea that I've either seen used but never eaten or that I would never ordinarily order anywhere else. The smoked oyster risotto I requested as my second course typified this approach. Though I'd never eaten smoked oysters before, they'll soon become a staple in the pantry. Their brine met the smoke ideally and the risotto had the perfect amount of bite to be considered al dente.

Shaved with a perfect dusting of bottarga all over, this risotto was some of the best I've ever had. I wish I could taste it again...maybe that's a good project for this week. But where to find bottarga in this town?

Smoked oyster risotto with guanciale and bottarga.
My Cliff ordered a tagliatelle with tarragon-laden sauce and lobster coral, dressed with chunks of lobster tail and claw meat. It was a memorable way to serve the crustacean, which is too-often dunked in butter or other indelicate dressings. The tarragon and roe accentuated the sweetness of the meat with a wonderful hand-made pasta as its vehicle.

Tagliatelle with lobster, tarragon and coral.
The entree was a salt-baked branzino (sea bass), tender, meaty and flaky, with ramps and fava beans. It really was spring on a plate, all at once fragrant and verdant, a beautiful composition. Also, I'd never had ramps before, a member of the onion family similar to the scallion, native to the South. Ironic that, though I live in the South, I had to go to New York to taste these little beauties.

Branzino with ramps, eggplant, fava beans and apricot mostarda.
Cliff ordered grilled cuttlefish (he was really feeling the grilled cephalopods that night) with braised escarole (a bitter green similar to a cross between romaine and frisee), wonderfully balanced with livorno sauce (similar to puttanesca), studded with caperberries and olives.

Grilled cuttlefish with livornese sauce, braised escarole.
We finished, as we are wont to do, with dessert. My white chocolate mousse was topped with grapefruit sorbetto and basil gelee. I love the balance between the sweetness of the chocolate and the bitterness of the grapefruit matched with the herbaceousness of the basil. It was an inspired and very beautiful creation.
White chocolate honey mousse, basil gelee, grapefruit sorbetto.

I can't wait to eat at Marea again. I'd actually not mind naming my first-born daughter after the restuarant. Maybe that would be an appropriate honor to this approachable and highly-regarded Central Park East restaurant.

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