It's been well over a year since I've been to Marea, which was my second favorite restaurant behind Eleven Madison Park in 2009. I'm happy to say that the food is still stellar. While I've had both the 4 course prix fixe ($89) and the pasta and crudo tasting menu ($125, but they seem to be fazing it out) before, this time we went a la carte because I wanted to try the whole fish. It took a while working with the vast menu to plot the a la carte course of attack, but I think we did a very good job, even if we did go a little overboard.
To start, we had the signature RICCI, which is sea urchin draped in lardo with a little sea salt over a crostini. It's great, with the warm rich lardo a terrific pairing for the unctuous uni. But here's the thing. Every time I go there, I ask for a wedge of lemon and squeeze a few drops over it. I think it balances everything and makes it even better. If you've had the ricci here before, I strongly suggest trying it my way. If you've never had it before, I suggest trying it as the chef intended before adding the lemon juice.
Also joining us to start the meal were SARDINES, house marinated and served with arugula. It seemed a bit stingy at three tiny filets to an order, but they were absolutely delicious. The marinade was well balanced and the arugula was a good pairing. We could have eaten many more of these.
Here was a preview of our branzino to be salt-baked. While my friend DC is a huge dover sole fan, I managed to convince him to go with the branzino because you don't really find wild Italian branzino at many places. The ones they have average two pounds, and are meant for two, but we split the flesh amongst the three of us and just ordered more from elsewhere on the menu.
Our amuse was a butternut squash soup. The texture, combined with the sweetness, made me feel like I was drinking syrup.
For the most part, DC kept on his diet and ate vegetables. This simple salad of greens and vinaigrette is literally the only full plate of vegetables/salad on the menu. The other vegetables come as sides.
It was really hard, but we narrowed it down to four choices for our crudo course. Starting from the bottom were SPARNOCCHI. Side striped shrimp, lemon, black lava salt, served on a thin cucumber slice. The shrimp were super sweet and the cucumber and lemon made it a very refreshing first bite. Next was the LANCIA, which was marlin with sturgeon caviar and mussel vinaigrette. The firm flesh of the marlin held up well to the very tasty sturgeon caviar. This was good stuff. I'm also pretty sure that there's much more caviar on the a la carte order than on an order that comes with the prix fixe. The next piece doesn't seem to be on the current menu, so I don't have a description. I remember that it was a type of mackerel served with shisito peppers, and that there was an acidic note that went well with the strongly flavored fish. The final selection on the top of the plate was the TONNO, which was a cube of very fresh tasting bigeye tuna with an oyster crema and crispy sunchokes. The crisp on top was really important to this bite, adding a saltiness to the flavor in addition to the crispy texture.
We then moved on to the antipasti. First up was the RICCIOLA. Lightly poached yellowtail, yogurt, oven roasted pepper, hen of the woods, and whitefish roe. The yellowtail was cooked beautifully, and I really liked how the yogurt and the roe went together with the fish.
Another one of his signatures is the ASTICE, which features nova scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al funghetto, and basil. This is unique because you don't normally see lobster and cheese paired together. Everything works really well together, from the creamy textures to all the flavor components playing important roles, especially the basil.
However good those were, this was the dish that I thought was truly stellar. The POLIPO was grilled octopus, smoked potatoes, pickled red onion, chilies, and tonnato and it was absolutely wonderful. From the outrageously tender meat with a slight char on the edge of the tentacle, to the sweetness of the sauce mixed with the smoked potatoes, this dish just wowed.
For the pasta course, SC and I decided to split two pastas. First here was the TORTELLI, lobster ravioli with bagna cauda and trout roe. While I enjoyed this, and there was definite lobster flavor, I think I much prefer a previous version I had here when the lobster raviolis were mezzalunas.
This being SC's first time here, we obviously had to have the signature FUSILLI with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow. There is so much complexity at work here, and yet the components are balanced in harmony, such as the richness of the bone marrow and the acidity from the tomatoes.
A nice little yin yang effect going on here.
Still sticking to his diet, DC had a side of ROASTED BEETS with RICOTTA SALATA while we were having our pastas.
Because getting a whole fish wasn't over the top enough, I added one seared langoustine which was delicious. While we didn't get to see the fish still in the salt crust, you could tell the cooking method just by tasting it. The fish was so incredibly moist and flavorful. The fish came with four sauces (sicilian caper and wild oregano, citrus lemon, tomato with olive and caper, and parsley with basil) and they all worked well with the beautiful flesh of the fish. I couldn't pick a clear winner.
The whole fish also comes with two sides, but I guess I didn't take a photo. We had the BRAISED ESCAROLE with ANCHOVY and the ROASTED BRUSSEL SPROUTS, minus the pancetta. DC liked the crisp outer leaves of the brussel sprouts, but would've preferred the inside to have been more tender. I thought the escarole had too strong of an anchovy flavor. While it might have been a good side for another entree, the delicate fish did not need to be accompanied by something so strong.
A selection of little biscotti to start the sweets.
Still staying light, DC had the sorbet selection with mandarin orange, green apple, and cassis mint. All were nice but I was most impressed by the green apple, which managed not to be too tart.
SC had the fromage blanc PANNA COTTA with mandarin orange, pink peppercorn, and thyme.
I had the AFFOGATO, with zabaglione gelato, espresso and amaro. This was so so good that I had another. Yes! I ordered another one following this and polished it off just as quickly. This affogato really will rank amongst the best you've ever had.
A small selection of petit fours to finish off the meal. I think there was meyer lemon gelee, pistachio, and chocolates with salted caramel and espresso flavors.
As a parting gift, this lemon-flavored cupcake that was really big and dense.
Okay, so between the five separate a la carte courses, adding a langoustine, and having two desserts, I may have gone more than a little overboard. But the food was just so delicious across the board, and extraordinary at times. I'm very glad I had an opportunity to return to Marea.