240 Central Park South near Broadway, Midtown West, (212) 582-5100
Getting There: 1,A,B,C,D to 59th Street- Columbus Circle
Restaurant Review: Marea
The misconception that “all Italian restaurants are made equal” was effectively broken when we happened upon Marea. We’d be remiss to pretend that this was a place that we stumbled upon rather than one where we reserved a table more than three full weeks beforehand. Perched on the picturesque Central Park South, Marea has all of the sublime intricacies that you would expect from a restaurant of this caliber, and based strictly on performance, encompassing all of the qualities we look for in defining greatness, Marea stands alone.
The chef, enigmatic owner Michael White (Convivio) has gone to great lengths to secure such lofty admiration. The 150 seat palace features fresh fish that is literally flown in from seas around the world and pastas that are all strictly handmade, in house. But there is perhaps no better term to describe the atmosphere inside than simply, elegant. From the friendly host stand to the chic, marbled bar with excited patrons joyously inhabiting its chairs, there is a quality that the atmosphere delivers that just feels special. And once seated, the staff goes a long way, and much of the time out of their way, to ensure that feeling resonates. While the menu does offer items a la carte, it is highly suggested that you take advantage of the $91, four course prix fix, which gives you carte blanche over the complete menu, to sample any number of combinations of your choosing, and gives you the opportunity to even experiment a little.
But where to begin? Start with the “crudo”- a hefty selection of sliced raw fish and shellfish- or an “antipasti,” select seasonal starter dishes, each one sounding more mouthwatering than the previous. Or perhaps the “ostriche,” six distinct east and west coast ice cold oysters, with a mignonette and a lemon-cucumber vinegar for ample dousing. The long list of crudo ranges from the local (long island fluke, PASSERA, $15), to the traditional (big eye tuna, TONNO, $19) to the unique (wild pacific needlefish, AGUGLIA, $15), to the unheard of (cuttlefish tagliatelle, SEPPIA, $16). Similarly daunting was choosing an antipasti. We shunned the “astice” ($24), a salivating combination of nova scotia lobster, buratta, and eggplant for a “braised snail and duck liver pate” (seasonal) plate. Served in small cubes, their gelatinous texture was quickly mangled in our hungry mouths, as the salty savory bites packed an incredible, almost indescribable taste. You know the flavor, but simply have never tasted it prepared so marvelously.
Since White’s distinction lies in pasta dishes, our next course is what we had anticipated most. First, the “spaghetti” ($29), prepared admirably with crab, sea urchin, and hints of basil was exceptionally tasty, and had our alternate pasta not been pound for pound the most delicious pasta dish that we have had in Manhattan to date (no joke!), perhaps the spaghetti would have stood out more. The “fusilli” ($31) is the must try, stand out dish here- although not for the faint of heart, the red sauced ‘corkscrew pasta’ is served meshed with pieces of red wine braised octopus and flavorful chunks of bone marrow. Both pasta dishes were excellent, but the fusilli stood above as the one that was truly brilliant.
Traditional Italian meats hand selected from Pat LaFrieda find their way to the entrees with “faraona” ($39) a roasted guinea hen, and the “bistecca” ($49), a 50 day dry aged sirloin, as the only two non-seafood menu inhabitants. But the fish is fresh and is flown in specifically for you to taste, and taste we did. The “branzino” ($41) was a classic, skin on one side, local striped bass, cooked to perfection, sided with seasonal vegetables, while the “dentice” ($39) was a fishier tasting red snapper filet, plated with sides of potatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, and onions. Again, expertly prepared and presented, but for more mild fish eaters- probably not recommended, although the dish and sides were completely devoured.
Candidly, our trip to Marea was a special occasion that the restaurant managed to make even more special just by doing what they do best- performing capably. When we claim that the restaurant became the perfect storm of sorts, bringing every aspect of fine dining together commendably- from back of the house preparation to front of the house service, friendliness, and knowledge- we are not over-embellishing because there is simply no need for us to do so. Marea is without question the best dining experience that we’ve had in 2011, and urge you to experience White’s Italian masterpiece for yourselves.