(Note: This review has been sitting in the hopper since before I fell silent for four months beginning last September.)
Yes, I am referring to the restaurant that out of the box has garnered a Michelin star, three stars from Sifton in the NY Times, and was named Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards in 2010. Yes, that Marea!
We’ve been there twice. And I wish I could tell you that those experiences were faultless and that I loved the place. But both times, I (as well as M) came away disappointed. That feeling was made keener because I’m a fan of Michael White’s cooking, and we’ve had excellent experiences at his other restaurants. Not long after he hooked up with Chris Cannon and took over L’Impero when Scott Conant and Cannon split, we went for dinner and I was immediately wowed by White’s food. A second dinner a few months later was equally wonderful. When L’Impero became Convivio, we took J and the P.G. along, and we all agreed that the food was delicious. M and I have also visited Alto twice under White’s tenure and were more than satisfied both times. (Note: Convivio and Alto shuttered after the White/Cannon partnership collapsed.)
So, why am I not smitten with Marea?
Both our dinners at Marea were late reservations post-Lincoln Center – 9:45 p.m. the first time in January 2010 and 10: 30 p.m. in June – which accounted for some of the problems we encountered.
Service the first time got off on the wrong foot. We were seated promptly and provided with menus. And then we sat… and sat… and sat… for what we felt was an inexcusably long time without any staff member coming by to ask if we had any questions. Which we did. M had his back to the room, but from where I was sitting, I could see the maitre d’ standing behind the reception podium, and I finally managed to catch his eye. No doubt he noticed the annoyed look on my fact because he came over. As it turned out, he gave us very poor ordering advice, so maybe it would have turned out better if we had waited for our waiter to show up. (He arrived shortly after our order was taken, was very pleasant, and service ran smoothly for the rest of the meal.)
We had in mind to share a whole roasted branzino. However, when the maitre d’ checked, there was only a one-pounder left, which he claimed would not be large enough for the two of us. But he never asked what else we intended to order, so he didn’t take into consideration the fact that the pasta we had in mind was very rich and, despite splitting one order, turned out to be quite filling. Nor did he factor in that we would have ordered a couple of sides and then dessert. Actually, based on the portion control I exercise at home, I should have known that the one-pounder would have been perfect. Regardless, that doesn’t excuse his poor performance.
Since there was a Branzino (filet) with Lentils and Broccoli Rabe on the menu, M ordered that. I chose the St. Pietro (aka John Dory) with Marinated Salsify, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Fresh Pancetta, and Saba. M was quite satisfied with the branzino. I tasted it and agreed it was very good. My St. Pietro? Not so much. A very generous portion it was – two filets – and despite being skinless, they were sautéed so that the tops had a bit of crispness. Unfortunately, however, the flesh underneath was dried out. I’ve had John Dory in other restaurants, and it has always been prepared perfectly. For a restaurant of this caliber whose focus is fish and seafood not to cook a piece of fish correctly is inexcusable.
If there’s one thing Michael White can definitely wow you with it’s his pastas. As mentioned, we began the meal by splitting the Agnolotti: Veal Ravioli with Sweetbreads and Funghi. The combination was truly delicious! Rich, rich, rich! And, as I’ve mentioned, quite filling.
For dessert, we each had an Affogato with Zabaglione Gelato, Espresso, and Amaro. They had me at “zabaglione gelato.” Three scoops. Yes! After pouring the Amaro over them, the server added the espresso. Heavenly!
The meal started with an amuse of Parsnip Soup with Shrimp – pleasant but nothing special. Bread and foccaccia were good, and we didn’t have to ask for butter. The meal ended with four chocolates, which were fabulous.
Neither of us found the large space and its décor particularly appealing. So, though there were very good aspects to the meal, the problems we encountered ruined the experience, leaving us as we exited with an overall feeling of disappointment.
Despite that less than stellar first experience, especially far less for me, we decided to give Marea another try. We were again seated promptly, and there was no delay in service this time. However, I hated our table. It was situated next to a small credenza which held silverware, so that meant a steady stream of service people coming there to get what was needed. No chance for a table change because even at the late hour of 10:30, the place was packed.
Request for the whole branzino: Round Two. Off our waiter went to check availability. Upon his return, we faced the opposite problem from last time. The smallest branzino they had was a little over two pounds — much too big for two people. It was as though Goldilocks had entered the house of the three bears twice and each time couldn’t find the just right porridge or bed. We felt totally deflated! This is an Italian-influecned fish/seafood restaurant. Branzino is bound to be very popular, so they should be stocking enough of each size so that people dining late don’t face this situation.
I suggested to M that we choose a different whole fish in a more appropriate size – presuming they had one. But he had his heart set on the branzino, so we ordered it. Our waiter warned us that it would take 30 to 40 minutes to prepare. We weren’t in a rush.
They presented the whole, raw fish to us before taking it back to the kitchen to be salt-baked. Quite a handsome specimen! After being cooked, deboned and skinless, the cooked filets were huge. Perfectly prepared, they were succulent and superbly flavorful. M chose the livornese (tomatoes, olives and capers) which was delicious and added more to the fish than the so-so lemon sauce I chose.
We ordered two sides: Eggplant Agrodolce and Arugula & Lemon. I love eggplant in any way, shape, or form. I’d never had it prepared agrodolce before. The eggplant combined with onions in that sweet sauce was fabulous! The quality of the arugula was first-rate, and the leaves were lightly coated with a lemon dressing. Portions were very generous. We ate half of each side and took the rest home.
We had again started by sharing a pasta. This time, Garganelli with Sausage Ragu and Parmigiano. And again, White’s pasta wowed us. The garganelli were perfectly cooked, and the sausage ragu was extremely flavorful, Not quite as filling as the agnolotti. However, even though we both finished the fish, we felt rather stuffed (hard to leave over a $100+ fish!), and we came to the conclusion that it would have been smarter to have skipped the pasta entirely or chosen a much lighter first course.
M begged off dessert, but I couldn’t resist having an affogato again. Once it arrived, he did help me out. Still delicious!
How to sum up? White’s pastas are fabulous, the fish when cooked correctly is excellent, the sides we had with the branzino were delicious, and the affogato rocks! Oh, and there are those fabulous chocolates. Still, the ambiance holds little appeal, and the problems we encountered both times overshadowed everything. So, it was two strikes, and Marea is out!
Addendum: In the fall of 2010, White opened Ai Fiori in the Setai Hotel. We’ve had dinner there twice and loved it both times. It is now our go-to White restaurant.