Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Marea named best new restaurant in America

Marea (240 Central Park South)

The James Beard Awards have been called the Oscars of the food world, honoring the best and brightest of the food and beverage industry.  So when the 2010 Awards recently named Marea the best new restaurant in the country, you had best be believin' I was on the phone immediately trying to secure a reservation.

Best? In the whole country?  That's a tall order to fill, and I was more than ready to taste for myself.

For starters, it would be hard to find a more prestigious location.  Near the corner of Broadway and Central Park South, Marea overlooks Central Park and Columbus Circle.

Unfortunately, our own location within the restaurant wasn't nearly as impressive.  Besides the Egyptian onyx and rosewood bar a few steps from the entryway, nothing about the design is particularly remarkable.  Although I did appreciate the lack of "stuff" and a more pristine feel of a gallery where the food is the showpiece, far too many tables (such as ours) were directly touching service stations.  Yes, touching... as in, if my dinner companion had scratched his noggin' too zealously, his elbow would have been in the top drawer.  I know, I know... you're probably thinking exactly what I thought.  How on earth is it possible an establishment that has catered to such royalty as Kanye West might not immediately recognize the face of renowned blog, Amuse * Bouche?

Needless to say, even if I didn't get a chance to try every item on the menu, I have now memorized each relish fork, fish knife, and caviar spoon in rotation.  Something about sitting next to a drawer chest of all the flatware thousands of people have previously licked is a little more than off-putting, especially when dropping a couple Benjamins on a luxurious dinner.

That having been said, the meal itself was worthy of every accolade it has garnered.  The service was impeccable, and even if they had no idea who I was, we were treated splendidly, and had an experience neither of us will soon forget.

Let me offer two important suggestions: 1) become familiar with the menu before you arrive.  It's extremely overwhelming, and literally every dish offers appealing components.  We spent nothing shy of half an hour debating what we should order, and there were only two of us; 2) I highly recommend the prix fixe option.  At dinner, $89 includes four courses (any starter, any pasta, any meat or seafood entree, and any dessert).  The lunch option for $34 includes a starter and a main course.

With the guidance of our profoundly knowledgeable and down-to-earth server, we constructed what I will remember as one of my top five dining experiences anywhere.  Though the emphasis is on fresh seafood (Marea is the Italian word for tide), executive chef Michael White (of Alto and Convivio) has created a beautiful selection of homemade pastas and meats, as well.

An amuse-bouche of salmon lollipops with black currant and basil

The Ricci is a crostini of sea urchin and sea salt blanketed with a sheet of lardo (herb-cured salume)

Santa Barbara spot prawns with Meyer lemon and black lava salt (one of our three selections in the crudo tasting)

Long Island fluke with lemon thyme and a drizzle of ligurian olive oil

Pacific jack mackarel with eggplant caponata

One of our favorite dishes was the Astice.  Succulent pieces of Nova Scotia lobster atop a creamy burrata (made from buffalo mozzarella and cream), with egglpant al funghetto, heirloom tomatoes, and basil.  See that gorgeous "caviar" on the left?  It's actually rehydrated basil seeds (the shell husk becomes transparent, creating the caviar illusion).  It tasted even more delicious than it looks.

A most wonderfully tender grilled octopus with rice salad, fava, and yellow tomatoes.

I cannot begin to explain how outrageously phenomenal this spaghetti was.  One of my favorite pasta dishes in the whole world, and so simple.  Crab, Santa Barbara sea urchin, and basil in a light tomato sauce, with buttery bread crumbs that offered the perfect contrasting texture.  I could honestly devour this every day of my life.

Fusilli with red-wine braised octopus and bone marrow.

Our server generously brought us a complimentary extra course of veal agnolotti with chantarelle mushrooms and sweetbreads (calf thymus and pancreas).  A perfect example of a flawlessly hearty dish from the land.

Enormous, buttery sea scallops (filet mignon of the sea!) with braised leeks, sweet fig, and a polenta croquette.

The most incredible sirloin ever to touch my lips.  A 50 day dry-aged Creekstone Farms, grass-fed organic sirloin perched on a bed of bone marrow panzanella (toasted bread salad).  It was easily 16 oz., and though not from the sea, one of my favorite dishes of the evening (of my life, actually...and I am not exaggerating).

Dessert was a moist pistachio cake with chocolate ganache, toasted pistachios, pistachio gelato, and a kumquat marmalade.

The sweet ending star, however, was the Affogato, a glass goblet "float" of zabaglione gelato with espresso and amaro.  A decadent coffee and dessert all in one.

The check was presented with a silver pedestal of house made chocolates.  The perfect ending to an incredible dinner.

Who cares if we had to sit in the silverware drawer?  The food is the stuff around which families plan vacations, and then regale the meal for years and years.  I'm lucky enough to live just a fifteen-minute subway ride away.  Though my wallet can't handle it on a regular basis, e-mail me if you want to join me sometime for the lunch prix fixe! 

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