Going Casual @ Marea’s Bar

This weekend was my second time dining at Michael White’s Marea, but this time was very different from the first. I ate at the bar. For those of you who have never been to, or heard of, Marea let me assure you this is no standard meal one would normally expect from “bar dining.” Although it was not the full Michael White special, eating dinner at the bar still had plenty of charm and I was greeted by the same great service and food experience as when I dined in Marea’s main dining room a few months back.

Although I do recommend engaging in the “proper” Marea experience – one in which you eat in the elegantly modern dining room, savor the Italian wine selection and partake in the ~$100 four-course prix fixe menu -there is definitely  reason to also consider the more relaxed dinner-at-the-bar approach as well. I did not have to make a reservation weeks in advance (decided to go three hours prior),  did not engage in a three-hour long meal, nor did I feel the urge to gorge myself in four-to-five courses. Marea is a special place and in no way will I try to discredit its fine dining appeal, but I am merely going to highlight an alternative approach to enjoying the restaurant.

Bar dining does not always draw that much appeal. Many times you end up with approximately two inches of personal space which other patrons frequently intrude as they reach over you in an attempt to get the bartender’s attention. The other problem I have found in the past is that service at bars can be spotty and the meal typically feels quite rushed. None of this was not the case at Marea. Even though every seat at the bar was full, I never felt interrupted by others anxiously standing behind waiting for a cocktail. I also never felt as though I was part of the conversation happening between the couple next to us. The setting was still personal and intimate even at the bar. As far as the service goes, the bartender could not have been more helpful. From the time we arrived he made sure to seat us promptly and throughout the meal he was just as attentive as my server during my last meal at Marea (and the restaurant generally has very good service). We never felt rushed and were merely left to enjoy the meal at whatever pace we pleased.

Marea is known for many things but the pasta dishes are famous. All of the pasta is house made and I do not think I have ever tasted pasta so delicate and well-prepared. Maybe once in Italy, but Michael White’s creations are truly one-of-a-kind. The most acclaimed item in the pasta section of the menu is the Fusilli, which is prepared with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow. Nearly anyone I have ever spoken to about the restaurant has brought up that dish at some point in the conversation. I went against the grain and ordered what optically looked to be the most simply prepared pasta on the menu – the Pansotti. The dish consists of house made ricotta ravioli topped with a fresh basil pesto sauce. Sounds plain and boring, right? Quite the contrary. Saying each morsel of pasta nearly melted in my mouth may sound cliche, but that is actually the precise way to describe it. When a chef can make even the most basic preparations taste exquisite that’s when you know he/she has created something special. I only wish the bowl could have been bigger because I now find myself four days later still craving just one more bite. Prior to the pasta, I started with the Astice appetizer which consists of a creamy burrata cheese topped with gracious chunks of lobster. Another seamless preparation and one I think should be on most people’s tables at Marea. Even though burrata comes from the heavier cheese family of mozzarella, this rendition was light and the lobster was a hearty complement.

By the time the appetizer and main courses were complete I was ready to call it quits – my appetite was more than satisfied. I could not stop though because earlier I spotted a dessert calling my name from across the bar – Strati Di Cioccolato. There are a number of tempting options on the dessert menu, but as a lover of chocolate this was the natural fit. The chocolate crema and salted caramel mousse were encased on either side by thin layers of solid chocolate and sprinkled with a coffee crumble to give it a little crunch. The dollop of Fior Di Latte ice cream (literal translation – “flower of milk”) on the side was a very simple and refreshing finishing touch.

Even in the most casual setting Marea did not fail to impress. After three courses and two (very) generous pours of Brunello Di Montalcino I was ready for a good night’s sleep.  It continues to amaze me how even at one of New York City’s most highly rated restaurants it felt natural to immediately fall into a state of relaxation and decompress after a long week. There was no pretension or anything completely over-the-top. … except maybe the bill that came at the end. It won’t be the cheapest dinner you have ever had, but if you find yourself wanting a last-minute splurge, and are within striking distance of Columbus Circle, do not overlook the bar room and take a peek into Marea. Hopefully your visit will be as pleasant as mine.

Marea, 240 Central Park South, NY, NY 10019. Phone: (212) 582-5100

When To Book: Marea accepts reservations on OpenTable but it can be difficult to get reservations, especially at peak times. I would strongly suggest trying to book well in advance. Walking in and sitting at the bar is always an option, just be prepared to have a little bit of a wait if it’s a busy night. At 8 p.m. on a Friday I only had to wait ten minutes, but that could have been a little lucky!

Finding Warmth @ A Casa Fox

I stumbled across a Lower East Side gem last night and I wish I had found it sooner. A Casa Fox is a homey, unpretentious tapas restaurant on Orchard street not far from the main Houston strip. I was sold when I walked in yesterday evening from the biting cold and saw the wood-burning fireplace exuding hear in the dining room. Luckily I found a way to have the host seat us at a table right in front of the fire which immediately de-frosted my hands and face.

As my sister and I waited for the rest of the table to arrive we were greeted by a friendly server and enjoyed a glass of Spanish wine. We could not resist the tortilla chips with guacamole, pico de gallo and bean dip either so we put in for an order so we had something to nosh on while waiting. As we sat, I took in the setting which for a New York City restaurant was surprisingly soothing. It is not a big restaurant – probably 15 tables – so it feels quite familial and cozy. The menus are handmade out of mini photo albums (I found this quite clever) and  the napkins are vibrantly colored handkerchiefs.  And then of course, there was the fireplace which could not be more perfect for New York City dining in the winter. Everything was simple and not overdone.

By the time our cousins arrived my sister and I had leafed through the multiple-paged menu and still could not decide what we were going to order for the table. There were plenty of choices and the food being served at the tables around us looked delicious. At this point we had already devoured the chips and dips – just in case you were wondering where those wen – but we were ravenous and ready for the main meal. We started easy with cocktails. The margarita was a no brainer but A Casa Fox also had some more inventive concoctions such as El Manzanero, which is a whiskey-based drink with warm apple cider and cinnamon. Great choice for a cold winter night. Once our libations were under control it was back to tackling the menu.

Since the majority of the menu at A Casa Fox consists of tapas style dishes we thought it best to just order everything to share. I would recommend the same if you decide to dine there. I had heard about the empanadas, so instead of choosing between the variety of options we went with the mini sampler that came with six different types of the restaurant’s signature. They were quite tasty and perfect for sharing. If you are more decisive than we were you can order the biggie-sized empanadas as well. The other items were a chorizo and Manchego cheese plate, avocado and hearts of palm salad, caramelized onion pizette, garlic shrimp and one of what they call “Clay Pots” of the Arroz con Pollo variety. The Clay Pots are the entree dishes and ours came with shredded chicken with rice, stewed tomatoes, plantain chips and other accouterments. The food was authentic and flavorful, with portions that were just enough that you felt satisfied but not overly full. We were a table of four girls so I am sure if there were guys in the mix the order would have been larger. Just keep in mind, the tables are very small so if you end up ordering a lot of food tell your server to space out the courses so you do not have plates falling off the table.

Then it was time for dessert. The restaurant does not have a menu, but the options change daily and it was very clear that everything was house made. My sister predicted chocolate empanadas and she was right. Naturally, since she guessed it we had to get an order for the table. This dainty empanadas were stuffed with dark chocolate and then there was a side of dulce de leche for extra dipping. They are small, but one is the perfect indulgence after a good meal. We also tried the other dessert offered that evening which was a warm mango crumble. It was prepared in an individual pie dish with lots of crumble on the top and a warm fruit filling. Mango crumb might sound a little off-the-beaten path but it tasted just as good as the apple version.

While I have seen A Casa Fox from time-to-time when sifting the OpenTable options it was never a restaurant I really thought twice about. I am glad my cousin so firmly suggested it because it was a really nice experience with food that was quite high in quality. It’s perfect for a nice date, a meal to catch up with friends or to even have a more low key celebration (there were one or two larger tables set up). It will be on the list of restaurants to go back to and I am glad to have found a new special place in the heart of the Lower East Side.

A Casa Fox, 173 Orchard Street, New York, NY , 10002. Phone: (212) 253-1900.

When To Book: A Casa Fox accepts reservations on OpenTable and I did not have a hard time getting a table on short notice. It is, however, a small restaurant so if you know you will be dining with a larger party I would suggest reserving in advance.