When Not to Go to Marea – NYC
You’ve heard it before. Don’t go to a restaurant near closing time. No one, except possibly the owner, will be happy to receive customers when everyone has their mind set to go home. It’s like getting an email from your boss for a last-minute project at 4:30 pm on a Friday. It sucks. Well, I discovered this also applies to lunch. Do not go to a restaurant at the end of lunch service. The BF and I had reservations at Marea at 2:30 pm on a Sunday. We got there late. It was a holiday weekend and we decided to take a cab through the heart of tourist central. This was our first mistake. We got there at 3 pm. When the host informed us the kitchen was closing but we could be seated on the condition we order quickly, we agreed. Mistake two. We should have walked out the door. Instead, we rushed and were rushed through what should have been a leisurely weekend lunch. Not a big deal when eating at a cheapo diner two in the morning, but not so pleasant at a nice (read expensive; 2 courses for $42 at lunch) restaurant.
For my first course, I ordered the Astice — Nova Scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al funghetto, and tomatoes garnished with fresh basil and basil seeds (supp $6) — from the antipasti section. (There’s also a raw Astice in the crudo section of the menu.) This was the best dish I ate at Marea. It’s hard to go wrong with burrata, lobster, and basil. The burrata was light and creamy, the lobster gently cooked, and the basil seeds — although not strong in flavor — were visually interesting and also added textural contrast. The only problem with this near perfect dish was the dirt at the base of the fresh basil. I marked this up to the kitchen rushing out the food.
For David’s first course, he ordered the Seppia from the crudo menu, raw cuttlefish tagliatelle-like strips with soffrito served atop cucumber slices and sprinkled with bottarga di muggine (grey mullet roe). This was light with a pronounced fishy flavor because of the bottarga. A pop of citrus would have been nice, but I thought it was good nevertheless. I happen to like bottarga, but unfortunately, David does not. It turns out in his haste to order when the waiter was hovering over us, he had glanced over the part about the bottarga. No fear, the Seppia did not go wasted. I kindly helped him out with his plate.
David was somewhat happier with his main course, the Spigola Nera, local grilled black sea bass with beluga lentils, puntarella, red pepper soffrito, and potatoes. Somewhat, because although the fish was cooked well, it was very plain. Simple is good, but you also need flavor.
On the other end of the spectrum was my bowl of Fusilli, housemade durum wheat pasta in a tomato sauce with red wine braised baby octopus and bone marrow. Sprinkled on top was toasted garlic-infused bread crumbs. No void in the flavor department here. The bone marrow, of which there were several glorious globules, beautifully rounded out the tangy sauce. In addition, I appreciated the generous amount of tender octopus and the crunch of the bread crumbs. However, it seems the kitchen was a tad heavy-handed with the salt; marring yet another near perfect dish. Considering all the rave reviews I read about the Fusilli, perhaps this was a fluke. Again, I marked this up to the kitchen rushing out the food.
At the end, we decided to share a dessert and David chose the Cioccolato Bianco e Pompelmo ($13), white chocolate honey mousse with pine nuts, grapefruit sorbet, basil, and surprisingly, a crust made with Pop Rocks. I found the crust fun, Pop Rocks most often are, but overall I found the dessert very safe. It needed a little more oomph. I’m not usually the one with the sweet tooth, but perhaps a little more sweetness would have helped. David, however, was a fan. He loved the pine nuts with the white chocolate mousse. I would have liked if the pine nuts were toasted.
The meal ended with petit fours. Free treats are always welcome, but nothing was very memorable except one particular piece of chocolate that was filled with salted caramel. Gooey salted caramel is never a bad thing.
Would I go back? It’s hard to say. Perhaps under normal circumstances we would have had a better experience. I admit, we were at fault for arriving late and agreeing to a frenetic dining situation. And it seemed to me most of the faults of the food had to do with execution rather than concept. Nothing we ate was horrible. Quite the contrary, my two courses were close to excellent. Still, when a meal at Marea costs as much as it does, and you’re hoping for perfection, you’re bound to be let down when your expectations aren’t met.