The urge toward empire is common to business titans and tin-pot potentates, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon among chefs. Prior to Jean-Georges, Mario, and the rest of the preening super-chefs of the recently concluded go-go years, great cooks rarely opened more than two restaurants in a lifetime, and usually both were in the same town. During the boom, however, culinary moguls expanded their brands with a kind of lunatic zeal. They popped up on TV shows, spanned the globe in private jets, and lent their names to crackpot, overleveraged projects in Vegas and Dubai. Now, of course, many of these chefs’ empires are under duress. Some have quietly folded their far-flung outposts, while others’ operations are teetering perilously close to collapse. The next generation of chefs, meanwhile, have retreated meekly back to the kitchen, where their ambitions don’t extend much beyond cultivating new cheeseburger recipes and keeping their restaurants open from month to month.
But don’t tell this to Michael White and his partner, Chris Cannon. The kinetic midtown restaurateurs don’t appear to have gotten the news about the fine-dining apocalypse. Two years ago, they relaunched the excellent Northern Italian restaurant Alto, to glowing reviews. Last year, with White in the kitchen cooking his beloved Southern Italian food, they turned Convivio, in Tudor City, into a national dining destination. Now comes Marea, a glittering seafood establishment on Central Park South designed the old-fashioned way, with lofty, even imperial ambitions in mind. The lounge area features a crudo bar (the name of the restaurant means “tide” in Italian) made from carved Egyptian onyx. The floors and walls are fashioned from lacquered Indonesian rosewood, like something you’d find on a Saudi sheikh’s yacht. The dining room is decorated with twirling seashells hand-dipped in silver, and the fish are flown in from oceans around the world and paraded among the tables, for diners’ inspection, on glass-covered trolleys heaped with crushed ice.
“I hope one of us is on an expense account,” muttered one of the hard-bitten food professionals at my table, as we blinked in wonderment at the menu stocked with old-economy luxuries like yellowtail crudi finished with oyster crema, and slabs of wild Dover sole priced at $45 per pound. Shortly, a wave of small-plate items emerged from the kitchen, ranging from the ordinary (gummy cubes of yellowfin, flat pieces of Long Island fluke crudo) to the semi-sublime (sea urchin with lardo, tangles of cuttlefish “tagliatelle”). We skipped the ostentatious “Ostriche e Vongole & Caviale” (a.k.a. oysters, clams, and caviar) section of the menu (the Calvisius caviar from Italy costs $120 per ounce) and plunged into the antipasti, which included peekytoe-crab salad softened with lemon balm (very good), smooth, green romanesco soup sprinkled with trout roe and sorrel (also very good), and a cool Nova Scotia lobster, ingeniously paired with basil seeds, white eggplant, and a melting wedge of burrata cheese (delicious).
I’ve written about White’s unique, Batali-esque ability to imbue traditional Italian cuisine with his own special combination of technique and soul. But as the meal proceeds, you can’t help feeling that the exuberant, intuitive chef is not entirely at home in the precise, finicky realm of fish. One of White’s great pasta specialties is fusilli smothered in a delicately braised pork-shoulder ragù. Deprived of pork, he substitutes octopus at Marea, then loads this already heavy dish with lumps of heart-stopping bone marrow. The sense of overkill is magnified by the grand entrée-size pasta portions, among them a dank pile of spinosini obscured in a swarm of pricey but tasteless langoustines, and tubes of house-made gramigne overwhelmed with smoked cod and too much speck. My heaping portion of crab-and-sea-urchin spaghetti had a lustrous, exotic quality to it, but nothing on the pasta list was quite as satisfying (or, at $23, as comparatively cheap) as the little ricotta-filled “pansotti” ravioli (served with a pesto artfully flavored with nettles), which contains no seafood at all.
The seafood entrées, when they finally appear, come in all sorts of baroque shapes and sizes. On my visits, I ordered the Dover sole from the trolley cart, and a vividly orange, spiky-finned John Dory, which had arrived via FedEx from Greece that morning. Unfortunately, neither had that crisp, popping flavor you get from impeccably cooked fish straight from the sea. If it’s freshness you’re after, try the ivory-colored black bass (with artichokes, pine nuts, and pools of salsa verde) or the skate, piled over morels and a bed of green, butter-soaked summer peas. A passable seafood risotto is also available, along with an elaborate $45 “bordetto di pesce” soup from Italy’s Adriatic coast, which could have used a little more broth. My scallops were sweet and fresh, though weirdly slippery (they’re touched with more lardo), and if you’re not dieting, you’ll probably enjoy the Columbia River salmon, which the calorie-happy chef poaches in duck fat.
Is it really necessary, in this era of self-conscious austerity, to cook a perfectly good piece of salmon in duck fat? Possibly not. But then, Marea is to Mike White’s great restaurant, Convivio, what Mario Batali’s Del Posto is to Babbo. For all its impressive, even dazzling qualities, it feels less like a labor of love than like one of ambition and duty. Like Joe Bastianich and Batali, Cannon and White are engaged in a bald play for Michelin glory (a multi-star jewel, as it were, in their imperial crown), and they’re pulling out all the stops to make it happen. There are lots of fusty liqueurs on the menu (they have their own trolley cart), and several hundred bottles of wine, many of them interesting, well-priced whites from the south of Italy. The desserts are proficient, in a classic gourmet way, though rarely uplifting. If you’re in the mood for more nostalgic largesse, try the silky panna cotta (with lemon verbena) and the wafer-thin gianduja tart, scattered with cocoa nibs. For something lighter, I recommend the affogato, which is topped with a foamy, zabaglione-flavored ice cream and served in a glass goblet fit for a king.