Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ocean Life

I have retreated, in my old-ish age, from dinners at fancy restaurants, where I once found myself most at home. But every once in a while an occasion arises--a birthday or otherwise noteworthy and celebratory event--that calls me back into three- and four-star New York life. Last night, such an occasion, my sister's birthday, brought me to Marea.

Despite some service missteps (the wine list arrived in the hands of my sister's boyfriend as a matter of gender consequence instead of my own knowing paws; the expeditors brought our crudo course to the wrong seat numbers; the sommelier, when petitioned by me to recommend a "not crazy expensive" and accessible Barolo pointed to a $190 bottle; the captain placed the check at my right, rather than at the payee's place), the food was, in fact divine.

First, green olive focaccia, slick with oil and salt, and a little cup of squash consomme to clean our palates. That gentle taste prepared us for what came next, the unctuous, fatty, and inspired combination of uni and lardo on charred toast, a marriage of the sea's prizes and the land's. It was like eating a combination of many different butters all at once, one with the tiniest briniest reminder of the ocean. Crudo was simple and clean. In retrospect, I should have ordered a fattier fish, since the rest of the table didn't do the menu justice. I had three perfect langoustines, raw on slices of mandoline-thin cucumber. My sister had the same preparation with sweet Maine ama ebi and red chili, but she found it too slimy. The rest of our table ordered oysters, a bit of a snore, even if the mignonette duo--red and wine vinegars--was tasty enough. In the future, I would go for a pink snapper or a tuna or even a branzino.

My next course was yellowtail, also raw, but adorned with chanterelles and thin slices of seared foie gras. In some ways, I found this course, in its entirety, most successful. My sister ordered Nantucket Bay scallops, which, when ill-prepared, reek of fishiness. But these were candy sweet and matched with bright red pomegranate seeds. The Nova Scotia lobster with fresh burrata sang in its simplicity and was complimented by a bright and impossibly summer-like basil puree. Gnocchi with shaved black truffles, stolen from my brother's plate, were the pillowy things they describe ad nauseum in The Godfather III and not those gummy, overdone monstrosities too often found in Italian joints nationwide. And a mushroom risotto across the table from me played to the virtues of fungus while demonstrating the care and caution it takes to make good rice good.

Next were main courses, which, for me, came in the form of delicate orecchiette in a sweet tomato sauce with even sweeter shrimp, just barely undercooked to maintain their texture. My sister shared her bone marrow and octopus fusilli with me, cooked in a deep red wine reduction and filled with all of the extreme decadence that one might expect from such a dish. She pushed her bone marrow to the side and I happily accepted her discard pile with those twists of pasta that were some of the best textured noodles I have ever eaten. My brother's swordfish, though it wouldn't have been my pick, was a study in well-cooked fish, but I didn't make it much farther around the table than that.

I wasn't expecting much in the way of dessert, as the Italians are rarely known for their sweet tooth, but Marea's pastry kitchen is extremely talented and nimble. My rosemary panna cotta was what I think of when I crave a little milk pudding and a wine reduction and sorbet added sweet to an almost savory concoction. My sister's beautiful white chocolate honey cake came with parisienne balls of grapefruit sorbet on top. Her boyfriend's salted caramel and chocolate cake hit all of the obligatory notes and added an extra punch of cream in the center that reminded me of the best kind of Hostess cupcake.

In the future, I will spend more occasions at Marea.

240 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019

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