Marea: Excellent Italian Seafood in a Casual Setting by Central Park

Note: For the next few weeks, Nick Solares, already known here for his burger reporting, will be filling in for Ed on Tuesday nights with a New York City restaurant review. Take it away, Nick!

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Marea

240 Central Park South, New York NY 10019; map); 212-582-5100; marea-nyc.com
Service: If it wasn't for the aprons adding a casual air, the precise, effusive service would be mistaken for a more formal restaurant.
Setting: Sleek, modern room wrapped in alabaster and imported wood has a salubrious, relaxing quality
Compare to: Esca, Le Bernardin, Milos
Must Haves: Ricci, lobster and buratta, any and all of the pasta, salmon poached in duck fat, Dover sole, steak
Cost: Lunch, $34 for two courses; dinner, $89 prix-fixe for four courses; menu available à la carte
Grade: A

I don't think you will see a more ambitious restaurant than Marea open in New York City anytime soon, nor one that succeeds on such an unexpected level. The early word on the Italian seafood-centric restaurant was that it was going to be an exclusive, formal affair—think the Italian equivalent of Le Bernardin. When the decor and food were unveiled it only heightened the expectations, for it had all the trappings of a formal dinning establishment—a sleek, modern room wrapped in alabaster and imported Italian wood—and the menu appeared to be a cost no object exploration of Italian coastal cooking. As it turned out the restaurant that partners chef Michael White and Chris Cannon opened fulfills the culinary expectations, but the mood is something far more convivial, casual, and approachable than might be expected.

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The room is warm and inviting, despite its opulent accents. The waiters, decked out in butcher aprons look like, well, like deck chairs, evoking the seaside inspiration for the food and lending a casual air to the proceedings. The expectation was, given the restaurant's posh neighborhood, a formal affair with waiters in black ties gliding through a hushed, somber dining room, and it might have been so but for the nosedive of the economy. Instead, the mood is far more relaxed, and the menu is constructed so that it is possible to eat well for a relatively affordable sum, especially considering the quality of the ingredients at play.

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Clockwise from top left: striped marlin, shrimp tartare, yellow fin tuna.

To whet the appetite start of with some light bites, like the grilled baby green peppers with their mild spiciness and blistered skin, or the playful seaweed, shrimp and chickpea zeppoli. The crudo—simply prepared and made of the freshest possible ingredients—won't disappoint either. The succulent striped marlin, for example, comes topped with caviar and wallows in mussel cream, or try the perfectly apportioned cubes of tuna topped with crispy artichokes.

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If you've eaten great crudo before and want something truly original try the ricci—warm sea urchin smeared on crostini and topped in a velvety blanket of melted lardo. The dish is ethereal—the lardo, liquefied just to the point of translucence, provides the perfect compliment to the creamy uni, and the crunchy bread adds a pleasing textural contrast.

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Marinated razor clams, fennel, peperoncino.

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Squid stuffed with lobster and slow cooked tomato, with zucchini blossom.

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Lobster served with a creamy burrata, and laced with basil.

The antipasti section offers a bountiful array of decadent dishes—tender clams, an exulted form of seafood sausage with a calamari casing, and a lobster served with a creamy burrata.

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Clockwise from top left: fusilli (red wine braised octopus, bone marrow), risotto mare (shrimp, lobster, scallops, basil), gramigna (smoke cod, speck, leeks, gremolata), spinosini (langoustines, pomodoro, basil).

Michael White is perhaps best know for his pasta and his offerings at Marea will do nothing to diminish his reputation. If anything, it will only reconfirm what many, myself included, believe—that his pasta is some of the best in the country. Irrespective of shape or saucing they are uniformly exquisite. Silky strands of al dente spinosini in a tangy pomodoro scented with basil is perfect on its own. The accompanying Scottish langoustines are wonderfully fresh—you might see White moving around the dining room with a live one stuffed into the breast pocket of his chef's whites—but the pasta is so perfectly composed on its own that they are almost superfluous.

Another triumph, perhaps the star among stars on the pasta menu, is the ropes of fusilli with octopus and marrow—a hearty tomato-based pasta infused with some of the richest flavors the land and sea have to offer. But the gramigna with smoky cod and salty speck in a creamy sauce brightened with gremolata is also sure to please. Some might find the al dente risotto a tad on the firm side, but I liked the bite of the rice and the tender hunks of lobster and scallops that littered the dish.

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Cavatelli, red shrimp, controne beans, rosemary.

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There are a number of composed fish dishes included on the menu. The salmon was slow poached in duck fat, resulting in flaky and buttery flesh that succumbed to the slightest pressure from the fork. The accompanying rich wine sauce and earthy chanterelles matched the richness of the fish. My waiter reported that the fish was so wild it had bear claw scars, although he did not specify if it had actually been caught by the bear or escaped that episode and was caught by a human. Either way, I am glad it made it into White's kitchen.

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A locally caught black bass could have had a crisper skin, but the artichoke caponata, crunchy pinenuts, and tangy salsa verde complimented the fish otherwise.

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Dover sole, steak.

In addition to the composed dishes a selection of fish is available à la carte and can be either grilled, griddled, or sautéed. A Dover sole ordered from this section of the menu was as flaky and tender as could be hoped for.

Landlubbers are not left out in the cold—far from it! Remarkably, the steak on the menu is sensational and not just by seafood restaurant standards. It is a grilled, 50-day dry aged USDA prime bone-in strip that has the distinctive mineral-rich tang and buttery flesh that is the hallmark of the dry aging process. But it might not even be the most compelling thing on the plate; it is aided and abetted by an irresistible panzanella made of croutons soaked in bone marrow. They should be sold by the bag as snacks.

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Hazelnut chocolate torte, chocolate panna cotta.

Save room for dessert. Heather Bertinetti, who is also the pastry chef at Alto and Convivio, lends her sweet touch to the dessert program at Marea, whipping up some sensational gelati, a dense hazelnut torte that is hard to share, as well as a rich chocolate panna cotta.

Marea offers an exceedingly high level of cooking. The pasta, as at White's other restaurants, is simply outstanding and threatens to overshadow the other dishes, but there are delicious offerings to be found throughout the extensive menu. The unexpectedly casual mood provides a more salubrious dining experience than one would likely get if the restaurant were more formal, and is perfectly in step with the zeitgeist of the times. Most importantly, the food is not compromised—in fact, it may be more enjoyable because of it.

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