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From August 15, 2014: Due Mari
How I wish that New Brunswick and its myriad dining options were closer to home! But then, maybe I’d start to take places like Due Mari for granted. Open since fall 2008, they are, if anything, better than ever today, and that’s even compared to their counterpart in New York, the celebrated Marea.
Both restaurants, which focus on seafood, are part of Michael White’s Altamarea Group. The name Due Mari refers to Italy being between two oceans, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. Mr. White has been sharing his culinary love with New Jersey for some time now, starting with Due Terre in Bernardsville, which is now their Osteria Morini. His fifteen restaurants span the globe today, and one small, but telling, thing that says they’ve got their act together is that when my friend emailed Due Mari’s generic email address for a reservation, rather than calling or using OpenTable, they quickly responded to confirm.
I had enjoyed dinner at Marea in June (it holds two Michelin stars), but also loved Due Mari a few weeks later, thanks to a kitchen overseen by Executive Chef Bill Dorrler and Pastry Chef Lauren Genco, and General Manager Mona Carbona. The four-course prix fixe menu at Due Mari is just $58, although we ordered à la carte, sharing most courses. While the ingredients used at Due Mari are less pricey than Marea’s (no caviar, no crudo for instance), the preparation and overall experience measured up.
Our dinner, in a soothing windowed dining room of earth tones and colorful art on the walls, started with two kinds of bread served with lemon-thyme compound butter. We each had a glass of French Chardonnay ($13), with our meal, from a wine list otherwise mostly composed of Italian wines, with nods to France and the U.S.
From a tidy list of four Aperitivi, smaller appetizers, we tried the fava bean crostini ($6) with pecorino cheese, and were thrilled with our squared off tile of bright green roughly mashed beans. The sharp cheese kicked up the flavor and we eagerly piled it on crisp toasts made from sliced baguette.
From the Antipasti e Insalate we ordered the Sformato ($12), a decadent, quivering parmesan custard on a bed of rich mushroom sauce, topped with shaved asparagus and little pieces of crisped torn bread. Just as with the crostini, we quickly inhaled this treat, loving the contrasting textures and flavors.
On a menu that changes throughout the year, other Aperitivi currently include crispy zucchini, and heirloom cherry tomatoes with ricotta, while Antipasti include seasonal salads, seafood salad, grilled octopus, and crispy calamari (both enjoyed on my first visit), and fried artichokes. There are always several kinds of raw oysters available too.
We shared a first course from the list of house made pastas, a half order of short rigatoni ($10/$18 full), with deeply flavored mushroom ragù, Marsala, and spinach, shaved parmesan
For our entrées, we shared seafood risotto and pan-seared merluzzo (cod). The risotto ($28), with shrimp and scallops, was as green as those favas due to English peas and nettle pesto. Yes, that pesky (and pain inflicting) weed makes great “nesto.” The risotto would have benefited from a more thoughtful plating, maybe a shallow bowl, but you couldn’t fault the perfectly al dente rice, and the spot on doneness of the seafood. I’d nearly given up on restaurant risotto after a couple of experiences where it was just too thick and unpleasantly rich (yes, there is such a thing). But this was a risotto an Italian could be proud of, just luxurious enough.
We also loved the pristinely fresh cod ($26), served in a bowl atop a mound of baby spinach, dark taggiasca olives, and potato surrounded by “zimino broth”, a light tomato broth popular in Tuscany (I later read) where the dish, when made with salt cod, is called “Baccalà in Zimino.”
Other entrées include salmon, fish soup, lamb, and filet, plus grilled Branzino, shrimp, steak, and a pork chop. We passed on vegetable sides ($8), finding our entrées substantial enough on their own, but hearty appetites or those ordering grill items might want to add one. Besides, we were saving room for dessert, a caramel budino (pudding, $10) served in a chubby glass, with a chocolate wafer and coffee powder. From smooth pudding to crunchy wafer to bitter powder, we exclaimed in delight and nearly licked the glass clean.
We enjoyed excellent service throughout our meal, and also enjoyed watching surrounding tables, some of which appeared to be living it up on expense accounts, maybe guests at the Hyatt Regency just across the street, with its corporate ties, or at the nearby Heldrich Hotel & Conference Center. And while, on this hot and humid evening, I missed the valet parking of Due Mari’s earlier days, there is a garage around the corner and up the block, to augment limited metered street parking.
By the way, New Brunswick was recently named the fifth most exciting small city in America by the movoto.com blog. With its lively arts and dining scene, all within a walkable downtown core near Rutgers University and on the Northeast Corridor train line, is it any wonder? Now, what small town (that isn’t a city) that we know of does that sound like?
78 Albany Street New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Service – Excellent
Cuisine – Modern Italian with a focus on seafood
Prices – Appetizers/Salads/Oysters $6-$18; Pastas $10-$14 (half), $18-$28 (full) ; Entrées/Grill $25 -$35; Sides $8.
Vegetarian/Vegan – appetizers, salads, pastas, sides
Ambiance – Stylish and comfortable, two rooms divided by a dramatic bar
Hours – Lunch Mon.-Sat. 11:45 a.m.-2:45 p.m.; Dinner Sun.-Wed. 5-8:45 p.m., Thu.-Fri. 5-9:45 p.m., Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.
Essentials – Major credit cards; liquor license, wheelchair accessible; reservations recommended.