When most New Yorkers think of Italian food, they think of pizza, lasagna, and spaghetti and meatballs: dishes with strong dominantly red sauces. And with good reason. These southern Italian dishes originate where the majority of New York’s Italian immigrants came from. At the turn of the 20th century, New York was the single largest nerve center for Southern Italian immigrants coming over from Naples and Sicily. As a result, Southern Italian cuisine is vastly over-represented in the big apple (which I’m definitely not complaining about). But with this disproportional representation comes the omission of the wonderfully light fish dishes from the coastal cities of Northern Italy. This is where Marea comes in. As sister restaurant of New York's other Northern Italian gem, Alto, Marea's menu is rife with raw seafood. Over half of the menu, in fact. At times some of the plates look Japanese in simplicity and presentation, that is until the golden dab of olive oil shines through.
Marea occupies the former space of San Domenico, which other than perhaps Del Posto, was the most expensive Italian restaurant in the city. In this respect, Chef Michael White's cuisine is similar: it's expensive. But the restaurant space has been completely renovated and no longer feels like a scene from CSI Miami. Its reflective hard lacquer surfaces and focused halogen lighting put the food on a well-lit pedestal.
The first glance of the menu brought a huge smile to my face: raw scallops, prawns, sea urchin. This menu read like happiness on a page. Dishes appeared fresh, clean, crisp, and simple: almost as if an Italian and Japanese chef had shared their mutual cultural secrets. I was literally ready to book a second reservation, as getting a table can be difficult, before any of the dishes came to the table. But that sentiment quickly changed.
AMUSE BOUCHE - A white fish soup, olive oil, with a fried crisp of bread. The texture was salty and grainy, much like watered down mashed potatoes. Still, the textures were nicely balanced, and I was starving.
RICCI - sea urchin, lard, sea salt. This was a room temperature slice of sea urchin served atop a slice of toasted baguette and encased in a thin film of lard. The warm urchin was shrink-wrapped by the clear layer of lard, preventing it from dripping off the toast. This was an interesting combination, particularly the salty cured flavor of the lard mixing with the sweetness of the urchin. I like sea urchin for its clean sweet flavor; I did not like how the lard's saltiness made it taste a few days old. The lard masked the freshness of the fish. This was an interesting combination of two ingredients I like separately; but together, they felt forced. Quite simply, this just didn't taste good.
SEPPIA - cuttlefish tagliatelle, soffrito crudo, bottarga di muggine. Another dish that sounded great on the menu. Extremely fresh cuttlefish develops an addicting chewy crunch with a hint of elasticity. The texture of this fish definitely had that. But there was so much bottarga on the plate that everything tasted like sour salt. I could not figure out why someone would pair a very fishy tasting bottarga to a sweet and fresh tasting fish. The bottarga seemed out of place and overwhelming; by flavor alone, it was impossible to connect with the freshness of the fish. The fish could have been 2 hours or 2 days old, and would have still tasted a week old. Bottarga has its place by itself and in small quantities; but in this case, completely dominated the subtle flavor of the cuttlefish.
SPARNOCCHI - sweet maine prawns, lemon, black lava salt. This dish sounded fantastic on the menu. Large sweet prawns lifted by a little lemon and salt. In reality the prawns were bitter in taste and the sweetness never came through. I wasn't sure why the dish was layered with slices of flavorless cucumber. Since the ingredient was not listed in the menu, it was likely more a thoughtless garnish. But why slice them thinly in edible slices if not to be eaten? This seemed too academic without any thought that the watery cucumber offered nothing to the dish, except for the color green. The cucumber skin made the shrimp taste terrible and the overall dish appear lazy.
FUSILLI - red wine braised octopus, bone marrow. This was another dish that just sounded incredible. I'm pretty much always in the mood for L'Os a Moelle, the smell of which immediately brings me back to my two years living in Paris. Its combination with fresh octopus also sounded intriguing. But the red wine sauce was just too sweet and too sour. Each bite of the fusilli left an aspartame-like chemical tingle on my tongue. And the strong sour smell, similar to orange juice, really put me off. The sauce was so thick and abundant that at times this seemed more like a stew as the pasta became pasty. This dish has so much potential; but the night I went, it was the most disappointing of the evening.
TARALLI - nantucket bay scallops, mussels, tomato sauce This was the highlight dish of the night. While I did find this sauce too sweet as well, the texture of the pasta combined with the briny scallops and mussels kept me distracted. But frankly this dish stood out merely because it was the least offensive of the other dishes. This dish has no offensive ingredient combinations.
UOVO - slow poached egg, black truffle, marsala ragu, polenta cream. A rich and creamy poached egg buried in a bed of polenta cream touched with black truffle. A weightless polenta cream that held together the black truffle and egg, contributing an earthy touch of silky-smooth cornmeal, which tied everything together. This part of the dish was exceptional. However, layered in there was also a marsala "ragu". The ragu was both sour and sweet, like a red wine sauce that had been sitting on the stove too long. Like the bone marrow fusilli, it smelled like orange juice. The texture of this sauce was thick, clear, and starchy. It was too similar to gooey Americanized Cantonese sauces, and completely offensive to the rest of the dish.
Our waiter brought us a small dish of chocolate petit fours, which were delicious -- paper thin layers of chocolate encasing a full spectrum of fruits. We chose to skip dessert.
Aside from the occasionally distracting across the room chant of "ándale güey" (Mexican slang for "Go ahead, man"), the service was excellent. The restaurant was packed and at no point did we feel rushed, particularly with the extended amount of food we ordered. That's no easy task.
But at the end of the day, the dishes felt forced and unnatural, and did not taste good. Creativity should never be at the expense of flavor, and every chef must at some point step back, look at his dishes, and do a taste test to make sure that they actually work. Nearly every dish we ordered had an offensive ingredient or flavor that tasted like it didn't belong. But the menu still reads really well, so perhaps the restaurant just needs some more time to settle. I'll probably re-visit; but not anytime too soon.