135 Richmond Street, Boston
Open Mon-Thurs, 5–11 pm; Fri, 11:30 am–3 pm and 5–11 pm; and Sat and Sun, 11 am–3 pm and 5–11 pm
AE, Di, MC, Vi
Valet parking at Bricco on Hanover St
Access up threshold bump from sidewalk level
The slogan for Mare is "organic coastal Italian." Almost all the vegetables and token meats are organic; almost all the seafood is wild-harvested. The setting, however, is about as techno as it gets. One whole wall is a backlit color organ that slowly shifts shades. Three silent TV screens play loops of Italian nature and history, and most of the rest is windows. What’s left is white or blue. The small sign outside is blue neon. Somehow, both the food and the setting are out of this world, and we are carried away by this otherworldly quality.
Executive chef Marisa Iocco has designed some brilliant effects, especially with appetizers and pastas. Food begins well with crusty bread and black-olive spread. But then you can just be amazed by something like the "Tagliere di pesce" ($16), a mixed antipasto of raw and cured fish arranged around a salad of beet cubes and micro greens. A pastrami of swordfish is just stunning — thin white slices with the clear coriander-seed, pepper, and smoke flavors of beef pastrami. There are slices of cured unsmoked salmon as subtle as sashimi; marinated sepia, a fish akin to cuttlefish; tuna bresaola, not so much dried (like beef bresaola) as cured, but entirely delicious; and a ceviche of pickled sole.
A glorified Caprese salad called "Buffalo mozzarella with organic tomatoes" ($16) was everything such a salad can be in August, with perfectly fresh cheese, a few basil leaves, and slices of several truly ripe heirloom tomatoes with some micro greens. Barbecued octopus ($14) will delight anyone of Mediterranean leanings. There are only three tangles on the large platter, but each is ideally soft with a good taste of the fire. The sauce is a pesto designed to complement the grilled seafood. In fact, our only pedestrian appetizer (and it was great eating) was a soft-shell crab ($16), impeccably fried with a bit of a pungent sauce (needed perhaps more; soft-shell crabs don’t have a lot of taste), on a bed of slightly undercooked fat borlotti beans, and grilled radicchio.
We asked to split a couple of pasta courses as an intermediate course, as they do in Italy, and our peerless servers arranged four plates, each with fractions of our pasta course, separated by diagonally placed chives. The numerator was rock-shrimp ravioli ($20), bursting with the flavor of the tiny shrimp, and a sauce of real chanterelle mushrooms with their near-apricot aromas. The denominator on each plate was scallop-potato gnocchi ($18), ultra-light pillows of pasta, with only a subtle hint of scallop flavor, in a peppery golden sauce with a lot of chervil, a fresh herb that has a little anise, a little parsley, and something citric of its own. Individually, these would have been small but adequate pasta plates, in the Italian manner.
"Secondi," as the Italians view the protein course, were anti-climatic, but still very good. My favorite was the simplest, wild king salmon ($26). The chunk of pink salmon was perfectly underdone, just short of flaking, with a glorious flavor. The garnish was two scoops of green stuff — chopped fresh fava beans and onions — topped with a long bread stick. Pan-seared John Dory with foie gras ($28) pairs a dense white fish with the highly flavored, super-fatted liver. Combined in one bite, the two elements taste like duck liver, but have a lighter mouthfeel. Separately, they’re both good.
An apparent specialty is bronzino (an Italian sea bass) served for two ($60) with a bagna cauda. As a special, the restaurant was offering single portions ($34). I still got a look at the whole fish encased in rough salt. The fish was served off the bone in strips, quite delicate, as the salt casing keeps it moist without adding any salt. It’s a fine light white fish, but I might have added a squeeze of lemon or lime. The bagna cauda proper is the oil dip, more usually done with anchovy and garlic for a strong flavor. What is dipped are boiled vegetables, here baby white and yellow carrots — something like a baby turnip in flavor — along with slices of fennel and waxy fingerling potatoes.
If you don’t like seafood, one option is Florentine steak ($36), reportedly house-aged. The aged flavor was evident in the excellent tenderloin side, which was medium to order, while the tougher but usually tastier sirloin side was a little overdone, medium-well to well. It’s usually the other way around, since butchers cut on the bias so the more-expensive tenderloin is a little thinner — we’re looking at a two-inch steak, here — and it tends to cook faster. Perhaps the kitchen overcompensated. It’s certainly a superb steak, served with thin slices of fried potato and fresh arugula.
The wine list is mostly Italian, but well selected for seafood-friendly whites and adaptable reds. I took the latter course with a bottle of 2003 dolcetto d’Alba "Madonna di Como" ($7/glass; $35/bottle), made by the ancient vineyards of Marchesi di Barolo. Dolcetto is the lightest of the three major grapes of Piedmont, and from this superior vintage I expected, and got, a velvety-rich red that was nevertheless light enough to go with salmon and other rich fish. In fact, it worked with almost every dish we ordered.
Desserts are not omitted here, and they are also very creative. My favorite was the infused berries ($8), which were soaked in some wine-based sauce and treated with a balsamic cream sauce. But the martini glass full of fruit worked because the berries were really ripe. Peroni bavarese ($8) will have its fans, but a frothy dessert flavored with Italian beer is disorienting to me. It’s sweet enough for dessert, and a cashew gelato is a good touch, as are a pile of ground cashews to one side and a pool of chocolate sauce to the other.
Serious chocolate is inside the chocolate polenta soufflé ($8). The polenta part is a crust of ground corn that contains the soufflé as though it were a flourless hot-chocolate mousse. I wasn’t crazy about the crust as a flavor, but I was crazy about the vanilla gelato on one side. Tiramisu crème brûlée ($8) is actually three small brûlées, each featuring one of the flavors of a tiramisu: rum, vanilla, and coffee or cacao. I’m a little vague on this because all three tasted mostly of egg. It’s a promising concept, but needs to go back to the drawing board.
At the end, we were rewarded with a complimentary sip of "raspberello" — a liqueur on the model of limoncello, but flavored with raspberry (and perhaps some vanilla). It was smooth and dangerous.
Service at Mare was superb, other than perhaps one too many offers to bring us a second bottle of wine. Our server parceled out the lone bottle of wine very well, however. This restaurant is too expensive for most dates, but might be ideal for seductions or marriage proposals. Life-changing decisions make more sense when one is so transported beyond the ordinary.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.