June 22, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Marea Battens Down
Homemade ferratini with clams, calamari and hot chili is sensational. Photo: Steven Richter
Homemade ferratini with clams, calamari and hot chili is sensational. Photo: Steven Richter

        The Prince of Tides is a stubborn man.  There might have been a moment in the countdown toward opening Marea (Italian for “tide”) when chef Michael White and partner Chris Cannon could have scaled down their ambition.  By the time it was clear the city was in economic free fall, it was probably too late to cancel the onyx that would illuminate the bar, but they might have gone for bare tables to save on laundry and added some less expensive seafood offerings. After all, White is a three-star wizard, with upper crust credentials from training abroad, afire with passion.  I suspect he could do magic with mussels and the pick of shunned farm-raised salmon. Never. Not at Marea. Let other seafood restaurants sneak in second-class branzino, he suggests. Sea creatures here are wild, line-caught, deep-sea, diver-fetched, FedEx delivered. 

Another triumph: Lobster stuffed calamari with slow-cooked tomato. Photo: Steven Richter

       And the mostly youthful crowd turning tables tonight in the month-old venture suggests not everyone is feeling broke or embarrassed to be spending $89 for the house’s new four-course prix fixe, $300 or $400 for two at the drop of the check.  It may be that all Marea needs to thrive is to be fabulous. Savvy friends have been raving about the food. A long-time big spender pal, grumping that the wine list lacks Italy’s all-star labels, says he’ll be back anyway.

        “There’s not much this beautiful in midtown and I’ll eat pasta.” So I’m back for a second look.   

From the glow of onyx on, you can see the $4.5 million spent on Marea. Photo: Steven Richter

        Yes, it’s beautiful. Franco Rosignolo, an architect from Imola where White prepped years ago and fell in love with Italy, has transformed the San Domenico space, opening it up into a vast sweep of dark Indonesian sandalwood paneling and built-ins, discreet shades shutting out the street with giant mollusk shells – silvered and au natural, mounted like sculpture – circling the room. The luminous glow of golden onyx draws drinkers and solo eaters to the bar. You can decide to overlook the third-rate art and focus on the luxury $4.5 million can buy. From the gazetteer menu and weighty tariffs, it should be clear that FedEx and prestige purveyors are delivering the best of the global harvest, and even if you don’t know enough to be impressed by the advisory that all pastas are fatta in casa (house-made), one taste of tonight’s scrupulously al dente rigatoni (with a rubble of chickpeas, chopped cuttlefish and shrimp) or fusilli (lush with red-wine-braised octopus and marrow) has to be a revelation. 

This is the skimpy fusilli.  Now it’s doubled and just as delicious. Photo: Steven Richter.

        White’s way with dough is legend now, certified by the foodie rush for his rashly rich and delicious pastas at three-star Convivio.  “I spend $70,000 a year here just for the crew that makes the pasta,” he says, having boosted portion size (and prices) after vigorous complaints about skimpy pasta rations. (No half-portions allowed, though two can share an order.) But pasta fans, it seems, are slighting the finny treasures. “I hate when people order pasta as an entrée and ignore the fish,” White complains.

        Tonight again, seductive pastas win over pesce. My rigatoni and the Road Food Warrior’s marvelous ferratini with manila clams, calamari and hot chilies, are piled high, after the price hike, $23 to $36. “Thirty-six dollars for imported langoustine on spinosini (durum wheat, whole fresh eggs, minimum 33 eggs, says Google).  I’m giving it away,” the chef confides.

        If you read my sneak peak posted after dinner the second night, you might recall that the six of us, all food professionals, loved pastas, of course, the handsomely mounted crudo trio, marinated razor clams and soft shell crab, but were trading emperor’s-clothes-rolling-of-the-eyeballs over swordfish and black bass. Even now, from what I see tonight at the four-week mark, it is still early to judge a labor so ambitious and slow-ripening, though the lobster-filled squid with long-cooked tomato and zucchini blossoms is a big hit and the pastas are still standout. My friend Matthew, eager to try the turbot from a list of critters priced by the pound, instructs the waiter to “See if the kitchen has a small turbot.” The smallest turbot left is 2.9 lbs, he is told. At $45 a pound that would be about $125.  

        “And a pound of that will be head and bones and skin,” says his wife, the best home cook I know.

        The two of them, who thought a $50 corkage charge to bring a great white Burgundy from their cellar was outrageous, are impressed by affordable options on the wine list (pinch-penny me insisted a scan by price), and we all find the $36 Orvieto quite drinkable. 

Mackerel tart was a tad too dull to live up to raves I’d heard. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I am disappointed that my warm mackerel tart starter is not the astonishment a foodie pal reported experiencing at lunch (where the $34 two-course prix fixe is a significant deal).

        Tonight’s veal agnolotti, sautéed in brown butter, are earthy, slightly heavy and saddled with too-cooked sweetbreads. Both the sturgeon and the black bass are listless. Matthew asks for salt and a runner brings it, grinding on much too much so quickly that Matthew is left dumbstruck, not quite believing that a runner would presume to salt his food. 
A little salt and less cooking might have helped the sturgeon. Photo: Steven Richter

        Some problems should be easy enough to fix. You don’t need an engineering degree to focus the ceiling spots so they hit the center of each table. (My friends can read the menu; I’m eating in the dark.) With a few weeks of psychotherapy to soothe his ego, the chef might admit the menu arrangement and multiple categories are unfathomable. For example, the $89 four-course prix fixe is hidden in parentheses on the bottom. Fix it or coach the staff to explain as they distribute it: “Everything tonight, never having seen the menu before, challenge me to explain it.  “Just trying to figure it out adds half an hour to the evening,” Naomi observes.

Rare and costly sea critters inhabit White’s majestic $45 brodetto. Photo: Steven Richter

        But it almost doesn’t matter since no one has come to our table in the first half hour except a bread-pusher, the busboy pouring water, and a waiter we ask to give us more time. We flag a passing fellow in a suit and a scowl who agrees to get our wine. "Is there someone to take our order?" I finally ask Cannon. A savvy and agreeable guy is summoned. Later, a request for red wine disappears into a vacuum, arriving long after the dish it was meant to accompany. These partners are three-star veterans so I know they care but it feels at times like Marea is overwhelmed by the tides. But I salute the lifesaver on duty at the door who heard me moan about my lost umbrella and insisted I take one from her supply of abandoned umbrellas in the coat room.   

240 Central Park South. 212 582 5100. Lunch Monday through Saturday: noon to 2:30 p.m. Bar remains open with limited menu 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11.30 p.m.  Closed Sundays till Labor Day.   

Patina Restaurant Group