June 8, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Marea Braves the Tides

 An aquarium of carefully-cooked sea creatures swim in this Adriatic brodetto. Photo: Steven Richter 
An aquarium of carefully-cooked sea creatures swim in this Adriatic brodetto. Photo: Steven Richter

        Marea – “tide” in Italian – is definitely swimming against the undertow of financial woe and frugality chic. It’s not as if chef Michael White and his partner Chris Cannon have had their heads buried in the sand for the amazingly fast year it took them to get Marea open. True they took time out to troll for inspiration, to visit the Amalfi coast, the great fish restaurants of Marche on the Adriatic, San Domenico in Imola where White once prepped before ascending to his own three-star spotlight. Otherwise the partners have been hammered to the wall keeping Alto vibrant and enjoying the three stars tattoo that brings full houses for the chef’s bold, rustic cooking at Convivio. 

The luxurious bar welcomes you from noon till closing time. Photo: Steven Richter

        So is Marea dauntingly expensive? “Not if you can afford it,” is the evasive reply. Certainly they might have scaled down their ambition and tariffs as well. “But not with wild fish. Not with imported fish,” White responds. “Branzino from Italy is the Rolls Royce. Greek Branzino is shit. That’s what people are serving. It’s not organic farmed salmon here like everyone else offers, it’s wild salmon.” And it’s not just olive oil, it is late harvest olive oil. People who want fish and can afford it don’t look at prices, affluent friends assure me. And as White points out:  “We’re on Central Park South. We had to do something special.” The $89 four-course menu – a choice of crudo, oysters or antipasto, then pasta, followed by a composed seafood entrée and dessert – is a post-launch gesture to simplify a menu that might seems overly-complicated at first. A $34 two-course lunch was added recently. (Bring your own bottle for lunch with no corkage fee.)   

Chef White mingles with his fans at a crowded sneak preview cocktail. Photo: Steven Richter

        Even so, the menu might indeed be confusing after a prelude of cocktails and gossip with a foodie “Who’s Who” at the dazzling bar. Items listed in “Boxes,” “Blue Lines,” “Titles in Italian,” “To Begin,” … “Before you Begin.”

        “So many categories… where to begin indeed?” complain some in our sextet of food professionals. We have scored a table on the second night and it doesn’t seem fair to be strictly demanding with the kitchen still in spring practice mode.  

Shot in low light, this photo doesn’t capture the restrained elegance.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Sleek and elegant and expensive with Indonesian rosewood panels and a vast sweep of back lit golden onyx behind the bar, the place is already crowded tonight with Convivio fans and enough cuisinary lights and wannabes to curdle a sauce. I’m not saying if a turbot exploded there would never be another cookbook, but… close enough. And Anna Wintour is here too.

        We’re drinking city water, but our server fills water glasses one-third full as if he is pouring wine.  I have to laugh, wondering what he’s been told – maybe, “don’t get too aggressive pushing bottled water.” (By the second week, a third of the staff will be rotated out the door.)

        There are heavy square service plates by Sambonet, sand-colored tablecloths, white Thai orchids and splendid whole grain bread and maybe the best olive rolls I’ve tasted for a while – Sullivan Street Bakery. (But Jim Lahey’s no-knead product may be abandoned by now because it doesn’t warm well. Shall the bread be warmed or shall it be Sullivan? The brass was debating.)  

Soft shell crab is a fine antipasto option, perhaps after chickpea fritters. Photo: Steven Richter

        We share seaweed and chickpea fritters and fried green peppers with sea salt and lemon from the category, “Before you plunge in.” I resist the lure of sea urchin cloaked in lardo but my friend K. simply peels away the lardo and shares her bounty. Marinated razor clams get an inevitable nod from the Road Food Warrior – who doesn’t often encounter a razor clam he regrets, and these are handsomely presented. A tasting of three raw fish on what looks like a slab of amber is quite thrilling in contrasts of texture and flavors. Peas and salami pebble the antipasto plate of semolina-dusted soft-shell crab. Chunks of pickled turnip scattered alongside are mysteriously sweet, almost like a fruit.

If razor clams are on the menu, Steven will have them.  Photo: Steven Richter

        White’s enthusiasm is clearly on his composed fish dishes and whole fish grilled or roasted with a choice of sauces. My $49 Adriatic brodetto of carefully cooked sea creatures is very subtle; I could say boring but that wouldn’t be fair on this pressure-filled evening. I am sure his black bass livornese (with tomato, olives and capers) and the swordfish with lemon and oregano are properly-raised and meticulously sourced, but frankly, for sheer pleasure tonight it’s his house-made pastas that stand out. Marvelous homemade fusilli with red-wine braised octopus and bone marrow, a portion of rigatoni topped with chickpeas and a cuttlefish and shrimp ragu and garganelli with sausage ragu. I have to believe the chef is as wild about pasta as we are but portions are smallish, as the waiter has warned us, too small priced as they are from $18 to $26.  (Order an entrée portion size if you wish and the price balloons, $27 to $39.)

Marvelous housemade fusilli with marrow and red-wine-braised octopus. Photo: Steven Richter

        Pastry chef Heather Bertinetti’s motto, “Work is the meat of life, pleasure is the dessert,” is the footnote on the list of her dolce – a gianduja tasting with flor de latte gelato, a zucchini torta with frozen yogurt, caramel-braised pineapple with ricotta mousse, and fried polenta with poached rhubarb and rhubarb sorbet.

        By keeping the bar open for drinks and crudo all afternoon and for walk-ins in the evening – a flute of champagne and oysters before the ballet, or just a pasta and a glass of red wine for a sole dinner in the evening, the Marea team hopes to say the menu is not daunting at all, but in fact, indulgently permissive. 

        And the two of us will be back perhaps not for whole fish by the pound (that gable of unknown pricing makes me nervous). But Michael White’s passions so often mesh with mine, I’m curious to see how Marea will evolve.

240 Central Park South. 212 582 5100. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 12-2:30, Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30-10:30, Friday and Saturday 5-11:30. Closed for lunch on Saturday and all day Sunday until September. 

Patina Restaurant Group