At Mediterranean pond in Birmingham, you’ll be greeted by a video wall showing scenes of people dancing underwater. Sitting at your table, you will be distracted by people who seem to be regulars in the loud and busy dining room. You’ll sometimes struggle to hear your mates over pulsating electronic music that seems more appropriate for the club than a restaurant, but it adds to the buzz and energy in the room. The server will invite you to browse the market to choose your dinner. After a quick and informative overview of where all the seafood came from and what they ate, you’ll choose a sea bream cooked in salt. It will take 45 minutes, so while you wait you’ll sip a green negroni and first wonder if they’ve brought you a glass of absinthe instead, but the characteristic bitterness lets you know you’re not. haven’t been misled. You’ll see other tables being served their fish, phones capturing every moment, and you won’t be able to help but stare. Then your salted baked fish arrives, and it’s your guests’ turn to gawk. And after nearly two years of takeout and home cooking, you’ll probably be enjoying yourself and feeling like you’ve been served with care and attention – and extremely well fed.
In Sicily you will see restaurants with great fish markets offering the catch of the day from the Mediterranean. You will review the offers, choose what you want and cook it the way you want. This is the vision that Nino Cutraro had had for several years: to bring a restaurant like those of his native Sicily to his adopted home in Michigan.
“I was put off by a lot of people,” Cutraro says. “They thought this concept probably wouldn’t work in the Midwest. [because] Midwest [diners prefer] meat and potatoes. But I do not agree. We have so many people here from all over the world – from Europe, Greece, Italy, the Middle East – [who would appreciate this concept]. I was very positive.
He and his partner, Feldman Automotive Group CEO Jay Feldman made that vision a reality last fall with the opening of Mare in the former location of Cameron’s Steakhouse. A glitzy, polished space beautifully dressed in crisp white linens and a serene color palette that evokes the sea, the renovated 6,800 square foot restaurant is the type of place to be seen and seen. It’s no surprise for a restaurant owned by Cutraro, whose Bella Piatti, also in Birmingham, often hosts celebrities (Mark Wahlberg was a frequent customer when he was doing Transformers: The Last Knight), professional athletes and film crews.
The menu highlights fish – shipped fresh on dry ice from the Mediterranean three times a week – with Greek, Italian and Spanish flavor profiles, as well as several pasta and meat dishes. Cutraro developed the menu with his wife as well as general manager Vladimiro Speranza. But the big draw, the heart of the restaurant, is the fish market, where fresh fish are displayed extravagantly on ice (Cutraro says he expected maybe half the people to select their fish at the market – but almost all the diners do it). Waiters will guide you through the day’s offerings and suggest the best fish for your party and the ideal cooking method. You can choose between four methods: acqua pazza (cooked in white wine, fennel, onion, capers, tomato and fingerling potatoes), grilled, pan-fried or cooked in salt (a technique which involves completely surrounding the fish with salt, creating a shell of salt that traps and absorbs moisture during cooking, ensuring maximum flavor and even cooking). Regardless of the preparation chosen, the constant was that the fish was cooked with respect and simplicity.
On the first evening, our server, Chrissy, guided us through the array of fish on display. She had chosen two fish for us, Dover sole and sea bream. She described the latter as the “princess of the sea”, a rich, buttery and tasty fish. Another evening, my table mate and I went with salt-cooked Spanish sea bream. The fish, which is of the highest quality and treated with care, is not traded here, with a branzino or Dover sole being traded when the market calls for it. The fish is prepared with respect, with the distinct flavor of each fish gently coaxed and accentuated, always tasting like the sea.
The fish is selected first, so while you wait, your other dishes are brought to the table at perfect intervals. We tried the branzino crudo, which intrigued us into a world full of salmon and tuna tartars. While I personally would have preferred less white beans so as not to take away from the fresh, vibrant fish, the beauty and simplicity of the branzino shone through, lightly dressed with just a whisper of dressing to underline the flavor. We followed it up with two Greek entrees, the Mare Tower and the moussaka. Both were meticulously and impeccably made, with the Mare Tower layering thin, crispy leaves of eggplant and zucchini with savory kasseri cheese and zipped tzatziki. Moussaka, a traditional Greek comfort food, has been reinvented and refined with a spicy pomodoro sauce hugging eggplant cubes. Another night my husband and I tried the shrimp saganaki. Sweet and tender shellfish were generously dressed in white wine and tomato sauce and topped with feta cheese. These dishes were outstanding and some of my favorites at Mare.
The fish was brought to the table on a cart, so hot that wisps of steam still rose from it. The pageantry of the presentation was a feast for the eyes before the actual feast. The grilled and salt-cooked preparations treated the fish with tenderness, with the addition of only olive oil, capers and lemon on a spoon. Sides like umami bliss roasted mushrooms and caramelized fennel with tzatziki sauce enhanced the entrees.
The cocktail list features familiar-sounding drinks with a twist, like the Mare Negroni. When my negroni arrived I thought they gave me the wrong drink because it was a mutagenic green but instead of Campari Mare’s version uses P31 Green Aperitif which gives it that hue verdant. P31 is an Italian green aperitif created from the infusion of more than 20 aromatic herbs. It still tasted like a classic negroni, powerful and bitter, but with added depth thanks to the clove and ginger notes of the P31.
What sets Mare apart is the convenient and attentive service. The servers are charming and knowledgeable (not to mention their ability to quickly break down a whole fish in front of an audience). Cutraro says he brought in several Bella Piatti employees, including the sommelier, Jimmy Schulz, who guessed at exactly the type of wine we were looking for even though we couldn’t quite articulate it, offering only vague descriptors. After we told him our preference for red despite popular belief that you must to drink white with fish, he brought us a bold and fruity Sicilian Nero d’Avola, “a pinot noir on steroids”. We didn’t even have to look at the list. Tell Jimmy what kind of wine you want and your price and he’ll come back with the perfect bottle. Speranza, whom Cutraro recruited from the famous Estiatorio Milos seafood restaurant in Miami, came to see us several times (he is often present in the dining room, dressing pasta or breaking down fish at the table).
the old New York Times Ruth Reichl, food critic and food writer, once wrote, “Once eating out was like going to the opera; today it’s more like going to the cinema. Mare goes big with everything she does. It’s bold, it’s strong, it’s extravagant. It may not be for everyone, but neither is opera. If you prefer La Traviata for The Batmanyou’ll find a lot to like about Mare.
Mediterranean pond, 115 Willits Street, Birmingham; 248-940-5525; maremediterranean.com; D Tue-Sat
This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition.