If it were possible to savor an edible dream, surely it would taste like Marea. Not a place you dine every day, but reserve for very special occasions, with only the most carefully chosen and dearest of company. When asked to plan an intimate birthday dinner for one of my closest friends, it was precisely the restaurant that came immediately to mind.
As I stepped inside, leaving behind me the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and yellow taxis crawling among a dinnertime-cluttered Park Avenue South, I was immediately taken aback. "Mr. Hawks, it has been entirely too long," welcomed George, the Maitre d' -- as if welcoming a longtime friend. It astonished me that not only did he know my last visit, but recognized me by face, not merely name.
Our group of friends gathered at the bar of illuminated Egyptian honey onyx, where we enjoyed an array of cocktails -- most memorable the Passion Arrabiata, like a fiery margarita with a kiss of chilies that tingled the inside of my forehead and snapped my palate awake, eventually dissipating to the sweet afterthought of tangy passionfruit. "What are some of your favorite menu items," inquired one friend as we waited to move to the dining room. "The Ricci stands out, in particular, I explained," an antipasto that made a lasting impression during my last visit.
Within moments of being seated for dinner, out came a tray of six pieces of the Ricci, accompanied by two mason jars of baccala with crostini. These are the entirely unexpected generosities and attention to personal preference that elevate Marea to a level unparalleled by any other dining experience I've had. And the Ricci was exactly as I had remembered it. A buttery toast point slathered with sweet sea urchin roe, draped with a thin blanket of lardo hugging the whole bite together like fondant on a designer wedding cake, all kissed with a light sprinkle of sea salt crystals.
The rosewood walls opposite the glowing honey bar remain glistening and free of streak or fingerprint, as if someone's ongoing side work for the evening is to carry a can of Pledge and perpetually polish for maximum glow. Around the dining room sit gilded conch shells. The dining room just fancy enough to let you know you are someplace special, but lacking the pretense that might prevent you from eating comfortably. The waitstaff is precisely the same. Endlessly knowledgeable about every nook & cranny of the menu & wine list, yet friendly and accessible, and gifted at reading and adapting the level of service appropriate for each unique diner. When one friend at the table asked for recommendations on how to build the four-course $89 prix fixe (the best option for sampling any antipasto/crudo, a pasta, a meat/fish, and dessert), our server smiled, and asked, "did one dish jump out as something you know for certain you want to try?" When he revealed the octopus fusilli, the server suggested, "perfect, let's now build a meal of flavors that will compliment that pasta." We were treated like royalty from start to finish, I wanted to hug every member of the team that had served us so excellently by the end of the meal.
Next, an amuse-bouche arrived in a miniature crystal glass, a lobster custard with pickled vegetables, almost like a garnished neptune panna cotta.
The Astice stands out as one of Marea's signature must-try dishes. A playfully creamy burrata slips through the tines of your fork if you allow it to linger too long. Scattered atop are glistening ruby-kissed lumps of sweet nova scotia lobster and hearty ribbons of eggplant al funghetto. But the most exciting adornment is the faux caviar, in actuality miniature rehydrated basil seeds that gently burst in your mouth like beads of pesto.
If the Astice is their trademark antipasto, a visit to Marea would be incomplete without a sampling of what has famously arisen as their signature pasta, the Fusilli (Thomas Keller even named it the best dish of 2009). Baby octopus is braised in Sangiovese, basil, and tomatoes until rendered incomparably tender and flavorsome, then luxuriously thickened with bone marrow, tossed with homemade pasta twists, and capped with a crunchy dusting of herbed bread crumbs.
Manila clams and calamari adorn the al dente farratini tubes, as the slight kiss of the ocean slowly gives way to the heated after kick of chilies.
Though the seasonal menu at Marea maintains a few of the standard favorites like the fusilli, as it periodically morphs we are graced with such delicious additions as this bowl of tagliatelle. The tender, springy ribbons stretch at the twirl of a fork, and then gently snap at the bite, sighing onto your tongue with a buttery breeze of sweet tarragon and salty shaved coral -- all gorgeously tossed with juicy clumps of nova scotia lobster.
The brodetto di pesce, an adriatic seafood soup, arrives at the table as a harvest of plump fruit freshly plucked from the sea and arranged in the bowl as a flawless still life, the rich garlic-onion fish broth poured over it tableside.
Jumbo prawns, a buttery langoustine, chunks of bass, sea clams, and a seared scallop the size of a toddler's fist harmonize for a mind-blowing tasting tapestry of the ocean.
The desserts are absolutely worth saving room to enjoy, like this nocciola pralinato, a comestible cloud of hazelnut torte with dark chocolate crumbles, citrus gelee, and fresh mint.
The creamy cylinder of fromage blanc panna cotta is gorgeously dressed with frozen crumbled bits of cream polka dotted with pink peppercorns, dollops and whole slivers of mandarin, a whisper of cake that actually looks like a sponge, all laced with a hint a of thyme.
But the bomboloni were probably my favorite. After a meal of so many unique and exquisite flavors, an elegant yet not-so-complicated sugar-dusted doughnut hole was the perfect finale, resting in a pool of cassis on little clouds of lemon cream, with a quenelle of prickly pear sorbet deliciously accented with elderflower.
These are the dishes of which dreams are made, and fond memories forever engrained. My friend who had mentioned how delicious the wine had been was presented with the label from one of the several bottles consumed, which our server had removed and protected in a plastic sleeve for our convenience. Every facet of the meal was exceptional, and while Marea presently holds only three stars from the NY Times (as well as two Michelin stars) -- certainly nothing to frown upon -- I predict a fourth star in the very near future, as a finer meal or experience would be difficult to find.
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Though a la carte selection is available, the prix fixe option at dinner ($89) and lunch ($42) is a beautiful way to enjoy more of the menu, at reduced portions and price.