The rain, intermittent all day, had turned into a cold, relentless downpour by nightfall, accompanied by a wind strong enough to turn umbrellas into missiles. No way could we follow our plan of walking uptown to 59th and then west along Central Park South, crossing over (if traffic allowed) when we were directly across from the plate-glass facade of Marea.
Now all we could hope for was a taxi, a rarity on such a night. And then, miraculously, out of the mist, one appeared and swiftly deposited us before the restaurant’s entry. We opened the door and stepped into the light. It was like coming out of a storm into a welcoming port.
A port in a storm — an apt metaphor for yet another of the Michael White restaurants that have landed like meteors on the New York dining scene. From deep, comfortable chairs before a circular table, we took in the scene: a full house, a lively and attractive crowd, smart modern décor, rosewood-paneled walls, and behind the bar in the cocktail lounge, a stunning marble wall.
“It’s actually honey-onyx from Egypt,” said maître d’ George Barber who approached our table noticing how transfixed we were by the great streaked surface. “I have a theory about that wall,” he added, his speech reflecting an unmistakable Scottish brogue. “I believe it has a mineral transcendental effect.” We weren’t sure what a “mineral transcendental effect” meant, but we were beginning to feel utterly relaxed.
George went on to point out two additional features of the dining room: diffused lighting, soothing but with enough brightness to enable the reading of a menu, and an insulated ceiling that absorbs enough sound to allow for conversation in the high-powered setting. “You have the energy and the buzz, but you can still hear the person next to you,” he said. No small accomplishment in a New York restaurant nowadays.
At that moment, an amuse bouche made with smoked trout was placed before us by our server, Troyan. A native of Albania, he is tall, patient, and fully informed about the multiple and detailed offerings of a kitchen that focuses on foods of the sea prepared in an Italian state of mind.
“The chef suggests you select one dish from one of the four areas on the menu,” Troyan told us: “1– crudo (sliced raw fish), shellfish, oysters or appetizers; 2– pastas; 3– entrees of fish, meat or poultry; and 4– dessert.”
There followed an intense discussion; the number and variety of selections being manifold. Finally, with Troyan’s able assistance, we made our decisions, albeit it with a bit of adjustment.
One of us was perfectly satisfied with her selection of “Passera,” that being Long Island fluke with lemon thyme and ligurian olive oil (an association from a recent re-viewing of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”), followed by “Fusilli” (one of the fourteen varieties of hand-made pasta) in a red wine sauce with braised octopus and bone marrow – spicy, incredibly delicious, “Spada” – grilled swordfish with winter vegetables, and “Crostata di Mela” – a little bruleed apple tart, the fruit resting on a bed of custard and crème fraiche over a pastry crust fragile as an eggshell, with cider sorbet. All of it, a banquet to relish and remember.
But the other had his eye on the “Ostriche,” (his all-time favorite food). He asked for (and got) an extra three oysters, following them with a second selection from the first category: “Uovo” – a slow poached egg with fondant potato, black truffles, taleggio and spinach, moving on to “Brodetto di Pesce,” an Adriatic seafood soup of clams, langoustine, scallops, prawns and bass – the Italian take on bouillabaisse, and finishing up with “Nocciola Pralinato,” an irresistible deep dark chocolate cake with bits of hazelnuts.
This is one serious menu for those who enjoy Italian food. (Find someone who doesn’t.)
And then there is the wine. We fully expected to order a bottle of something Italian; Sommelier Alex Clifford had told us Italian wines comprise 75% of Marea’s wineslist. Yet somehow the discussion drifted to Austrian wines and their limited presence in the U.S. He has a few, Alex said, some from vineyards within the city limits of Vienna. But then he suggested we taste a Riesling from the countryside: “Tradition/Kamptal Reserve” 2008 from the Schloss Gobelsburg winery.
It was wonderful! Full-bodied, mineral-driven with great acidity, spice and aroma. “It has all the things you like in an Italian wine,” Alexander said. We ended up finishing the bottle. It seemed the most perfect wine we’d ever had. “Rieslings have more connection to their terroir, their sense of place, than any other,” he told us. “That is what makes it one of the great grapes.”
There are many things that make Marea one of the great restaurants. Executive Chef Jared Gadbaw attempted to enumerate a few. “We’ve been doing it for three years,” he told us. “We know how to get the ball rolling with our large and talented staff. All of us work together to make things happen. Also, we try to provide a lot of alternatives. You can have an entire meal, or you can come in just for crudo and a small pasta.
“But throughout, the Italian influence is prevalent. Michael and I went to Italy for two weeks before we opened. Ate our way through Sicily. I had to train my palate somewhat as my background is French.”
He sighed, then, looking around at the crowd, added: “It’s like this every day – never an empty table.”