There'd been a lot of hype about Marea. Michael White's extremely high end shrine dedicated to Italian seafood has received a lot of great reviews and was rumored for quite a while to be Bruni's 4 star swansong (which went to a very deserving Eleven Madison Park, one of my favorite restaurants in NYC). Just in case the Bruni rumors turned out to be true, I made a reservation in advance and went there this past week with a friend.
Atmosphere: A beautiful space on Central Park South that turns out to be a lot bigger than it first appears. The color scheme is great and gives off a very classic vibe without using black. The place is just beautiful everywhere and the bar has a backlit golden onyx that works really well without feeling out of place compared to the dining room. The only thing that felt a little out of place was a big tv (not turned on) that hung on a wall near our table, as we were far away from the bar. I guess that could be in preparation for someone hosting a grand new year's eve event there. There is the buzz that every restaurant should strive for, not too noisy, not too quiet. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Service: This was probably the best service I've had in a long time in a full restaurant. Water was refilled at a ridiculous pace and bread was offered a few times during the meal. We ended up sitting and chatting after the meal for quite a while (we were there a total of 4 hours!!) without even having coffee or drinks and were never rushed. When I asked for the bathroom, a runner walked me over to the stairs that led down to the bathroom (and strangely enough a private dining room) area. The only thing that I thought could be improved was to have the actual waiter describe the food instead of the runners, as the accent made it hard to hear the full description.
Food: We both had the 4 course prix fixe ($89+certain supplements) and I added a couple dishes as well.
Amuse: House cured Alaskan salmon with black plum, wild celery, truffle oil, and olive oil. I couldn't really taste the truffle oil. This was solid, nothing spectacular.
Communal pre-app: Sea urchin on a slice of toasted bread draped with a thin layer of lardo and a little sea salt. This was really really good, but as can be expected, really really heavy. I think just a touch of citrus somewhere would have taken this to a much better place, especially at the start of a meal. This was ordered and not part of the prix-fixe.
Bread: Olive focaccia, sourdough, 7 grain. No butter. I tried the focaccia and the sourdough. Nothing spectacular.
First Course: My friend had the marlin crudo with caviar and cream. The fish was fresh but I've never been really wowed by crudo the way I can be wowed by sushi/sashimi. I had the lobster-filled squid with slow-cooked tomato. This was amazing. Perfectly cooked squid covered a stuffing of lobster that provided the perfect texture accompaniment. The tomato gave it so much flavor as it all worked together. My friend was also very impressed.
Second Course: I ordered the spaghetti with crab, santa barbara uni, and basil. While this was good and the pasta was very good, I much prefer Esca's version of uni pasta. My friend had the lobster ravioli with mushroom and asparagus and it was amazing. The best lobster ravioli I've ever had. Real lobster taste and texture and eating it together with the mushroom and asparagus was perfect. Lobster raviolis are usually underperformers in my book but this was the real deal.
Added Pasta Course: The fusilli with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow is the signature pasta dish that every review I've read has raved about. Indeed it was wonderful, but perhaps because I thought the sauce was a little too heavy with the marrow, I felt that the first few bites were much better than the last few bites. The pasta was also a pretty dense fusilli.
Main Course: My friend had the grilled swordfish which I did not try, but he said it was very good. I ordered the brodetto di pesce, an adriatic seafood soup with mussels, clams, scallop, langoustine, spot prawn, and striped bass. The soup had great flavor and every piece of seafood was perfectly cooked. Perfect for someone who wants a little bit of everything.
Dessert: I went the safe route and had the affogato with zabaglione gelato. Affogato is always satisfying though never particularly impressive. My friend went with the torrone gelato, which is an Italian nougat with very strong almond flavor. I stole a little bite and I loved it, especially since I'm a big almond fan.
In the end, Marea certainly lived up to the hype. No dish was a pure miss, while several were truly stellar. The price point is comparable to the top level of NYC restaurants, with Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, etc. but the quality is also there. Marea has definitely found a spot on my list of places to recommend/take people.