We in the food writing world love to bemoan the lack of diversity in trendy restaurants, the ubiquity of small plates and kale salads and house-made artisan pickles. Ten years after the “cook what you want!” mantra permeated modern dining, it still seems that most chefs want to cook what all the other chefs want to cook. The result is that the predictability of chicken and salmon and steak has given way to the predictability of hamachi crudo and whole branzino.
So it’s somewhat heartening to find a restaurant so personal and distinct that it’s hard to categorize. Maré is just such a place. Located in the backyard of chef Eric Greenspan’s grilled cheese shop and behind the Melrose Umbrella Company cocktail bar, Maré is as oddly specific as a restaurant can be while still serving — you guessed it — shared plates and a whole branzino.
Greenspan has been hinting for years that he planned to do something small and personal in this space, and for a while the rumor was that he would herald in L.A.’s return to fine dining with an intimate, upscale restaurant. Maré is not that. Rather, he’s created a kind of perpetual garden party, ignoring such trivialities as the fact that there’s no way to access the place from the street, or that an outdoor restaurant might need cover when water falls from the sky.
You enter Maré by walking through Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese — all the way through it, along the counter and back through the office/storage area. There’s a kind of trespasser’s glee in this, the same nerve that’s tickled by convoluted speakeasy entrances, and there is a magic to traipsing through a drab and cluttered restaurant backside, pushing open a door that looks as if it leads to a walk-in cooler, and finding yourself in a wonderland of twinkling lights and greenery. The hostess will ask you for your first and last name and your phone number (no reservations are taken, excluding large parties), which might lead you to believe that there’s a wait and that she’ll text you when a table becomes available. But this information is procured even when tables are available and you’re seated right away. They play by their own rules here, and the logic of those rules isn’t always apparent.
If you do have to wait, there’s a small outdoor lounge with seating and a foosball table, complete with a blackboard listing rules — again, many of them incomprehensible to you or me. (“Rule #5: Jim is the people’s champ.”) The dining room is a small enclosed patio, bifurcated by a line of potted lime trees. The surrounding walls drip with jasmine vines, and lights are strung overhead. It’s a beautiful setting.
A server will drop off some baguettes, dusted with a mix similar to what you’d find on an everything bagel, along with some pickles and olives and spreads and garlic-infused olive oil. Everything is placed on the brown butcher paper that covers the table, which becomes a plate in and of itself, absorbing crumbs and oil drips.
When you turn to your menu, you feel as though you may have missed something — a page or two, perhaps. There’s not much here. I’m as annoyed as anyone with the “have you dined with us before, let me explain how to order things off a menu” speech, but here it’s almost needed. There is a sparse handful of starters and smaller veggie plates, two entrees, and a mix-and-match portion of the menu titled “shellfish.” In the case of the latter, you choose from clams, shrimp or mussels, and from a variety of sauces.
How you choose to arrange all this is kinda sorta up to you; unless you specify strongly that you want things paced, most of what you order will arrive in a whirlwind, crowding your brown butcher paper with pretty brown bowl after pretty brown bowl.
Look to the chalkboard specials menu on your way in for a little more variety — a recent seared foie gras with melon puree and a small dice of cantaloupe and honeydew was a quizzically thrilling combination, the foie’s particular meaty aroma mixing with the melon for something that surpassed either ingredient.
On the menu, there’s an arugula salad, salt-roasted potatoes, broccolini with a smear of garlic and one true appetizer: fried smelts over a bed of radicchio that’s cooked down to an enjoyable, stewy, sweet and bitter base for the fishy little fishes.
And then comes the shellfish, which works best as a mid-course and is the dish seen on almost every table. It’s as if Greenspan has invented his own version of tapas, a vaguely Mediterranean version in which the centerpiece is that seafood combo. No matter what you order from the shellfish section, it will come with a bowl of spaghettilike pasta and a funny little wooden pedestal holding a soft-cooked egg. I believe you are meant to eat the shellfish out of the sauce, then crack the egg into the pasta with the leftover sauce and have a pasta course. Or maybe you mix the egg into the pasta, serve it to yourself, then spoon your shellfish of choice over the top. This ritual isn’t really covered in the explain-the-menu speech, but you’ll figure it out.
I didn’t have much luck with these shellfish dishes. One night, the leek and white wine sauce was classic and melting and delicious, but the mussels it came with were small and nubby and a little on the stinky side. Another night, the shrimp were big and cooked just right, but the spicy romesco and sausage sauce was so blindingly salty it was barely edible. One of the features of the sauce was whole roasted almonds, and I half wondered whether the kitchen had cooked, seasoned and tasted the sauce before dumping a bag of whole salted almonds into it.
If you’re looking for an entree, there are two choices. Skirt steak comes simply cooked with two sauces on the side, an oregano chimichurri and “uni butter,” a little pot of uni that is kind of liquified but also still kind of whole. For uni lovers, it’s a weird but delicious topping that will remind you of all the similarities between sea urchin and blue cheese. It’s a good thing, I swear.
The other is the whole branzino, which is expertly cooked and a bargain at $19. It should be said that, in general, it’s far easier to eat here for under $50 per person than at almost any other trendy new restaurant I’ve been to recently.
I like the idea Greenspan has come up with here, of opening a restaurant that really centers around one kind of dish, a dish that has a ritual that’s entirely of the chef’s own making. The bread and spreads on the table, the pasta with the egg, it’s all kind of theatrical.
There’s no wine list, just unnamed house wines for $9 a glass (white, red, pink or bubbles). There’s a selection of fruity cocktails that come in globelike glasses full of crushed ice, ranging from fun but slightly vapid (tequila, strawberries, basil) to fun and more nuanced (mezcal, blackberry, rosemary).
This is a place you come to do very specific things: play foosball and eat eggy shellfish pasta and drink slushy drinks. You can feel all the big-hearted fun Greenspan wanted to inject into this place, and in many ways he succeeds.
But when someone has a vision this narrow, certain things seem to fall by the wayside. I actually do want to know what wine I’m drinking, and maybe even have a choice beyond color. That brown butcher paper gets utterly sodden with crumbs and pasta water and condensation from icy drinks, and by the time you order dessert and your server puts down spoons on top of all that slop, it’s kind of gross.
This is not an easy place to relax and eat, despite the garden vibe that invites you to do so. Sometimes the music is techno with a beat so persistent and loud it’s like a jackhammer. As a friend and I enjoyed that whole branzino, pausing for conversation, we were asked by no fewer than five people if they could clear it while we were still eating. We finally gave up and let them take it.
If you’re looking to play Greenspan’s very specific game, and if you order right, this restaurant can be a blast. And what Maré sometimes lacks in nuance, it generally makes up for with its slushy drinks, its twinkling lights and its clever speakeasy construct.
MARÉ | Two stars | 7465 Melrose Ave., Fairfax | (323) 592-3226 | maremelrose.com | Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri., 5 p.m.-mid.; Sat., 3 p.m.- mid.; Sun., 3-11 p.m. | Entrees, $16-$19 | Beer, wine and cocktails | Valet parking