Sometimes a day starts out one way, then takes a beautiful turn for the better. After a fun but exhausting day and late night in NYC, we awoke in our hotel with about an hour to make it to our lunch reservation in Columbus Circle. We figured a cab would be quicker than waiting for a train… but we failed to take into account that the UN summit was occurring. We sat in the car for almost an hour, then wandered around Columbus Circle looking for our destination for another fifteen minutes until we stumbled, confused, hungry, and little late, through the doors of Marea.
Marea means “tide” in Italian, and as you would expect, is a fine dining restaurant based on seafood. We’ve seen the chef/owner Michael White on TV, we have the cookbook, and today we finally arrived to sample the wares. Having just started recovering from a cold, which obliterated my sense of taste and smell for days, I had discovered that morning that I could actually taste my coffee. A sad and sorry slightly warm hotel lobby coffee in a Styrofoam cup never tasted so good. I was excited for lunch.
We ordered a bottle of Emidio Pepe pecorino – a producer we knew personally, but a wine of his we hadn’t tried yet. Pecorino is usually very acidic, with a bite that reminds you of sharp cheese. This bottle was nothing like any pecorino wine I had ever had – it was rounder, smoother, but lost none of the flavor I expect, and was excellent with our meal of fish.
Our first course was a trio of crudo, or raw fish. The first bite (from left to right) was heavenly. A piece of raw fluke topped with a few kernels of fresh corn and crispy fried kale. I am not usually a huge fan of kale but even that tiny piece had a wonderful intense flavor and a nice crunch to balance the fish. (Keep in mind that this was the first bite of food I could actually taste in about three days!!)
The second piece of fish was a soft, salty, oily taste of mackerel with some tomatoes and a crispy potato chip. The third, a square of raw tuna, had the brilliant pairing of a bright crunchy cucumber slice.
We moved on to our next course, one of the dishes the restaurant is most famous for, a tomato lobster burrata salad. They took a classic pairing – fresh tomatoes and fresh cheese, and created something where the end result is vastly greater than the components. I could have eaten bowl after bowl of this combination. Somehow the tomatoes, cheese, and lobster meat had that depth of flavor – the experience of an ingredient tasting intensely of WHAT IT IS, that I am used to expecting in Italy, but rarely come across to such a level here in this country. The lobster, as always, was rich and tasty, the cheese was melty, soft, delicious, but the tomatoes… the tomatoes were the real star of the dish. There were marinated tomatoes, pickled tomatoes, tomato caviar – all of them perfectly balanced with vinegar, salt, and olive oil.
Our next dish for the tasting we had specifically requested as our pasta course. Octopus and bone marrow fusilli. I will order pretty much anything that has bone marrow in the title, description, or anywhere else, and I was looking forward to trying this combination with octopus. (A kind of surf and turf, if you will.) In many bone marrow dishes, the marrow ends up melting into part of whatever sauce base is used, and with a hot pasta dish, this is what I expected. Not so much. Not only was the fresh made fusilli tossed with large pieces of octopus that reminded me more of lobster they were that tender, but there were also chunks – chunks! – of white, rich, buttery, almost bacon-y bone marrow hidden throughout. It was like a treasure hunt, with the satisfaction of finding multiple “treasures” throughout the bowl.
I was getting pretty full, but we had our last course still coming – excellently seared scallops with a salad of piquant mustard greens, herbs, and capers with a vinaigrette. Underneath the salad was a delicious mash-like pile of braised napa cabbage mixed with lentils.
The staff was nice enough to send out a special extra course, since it was our anniversary. A creamy ricotta crostada with fresh grapes and pistachio gelato (Jay’s favorite!!) was a light and refreshing interim.
For dessert we were served a delectable chocolate-hazelnut-caramel semifreddo with rich whipped cream and crumbled marshmallow-y torrone with pistachios and caramelized bananas on top. I love that the menu here obviously has a deep respect for classic flavor combinations, while still putting their own twist on the dishes. They don’t try to reinvent the wheel, they just reinterpret it. The most exciting part?? This was only lunch!