We waited awkwardly as the hostess at Trezo Mare tried to wind down a phone conversation.
“A guy is going to propose to his fiancée later this week, and he needed to know about ordering flowers,” she offered by way of apology.
The hostess gathered up her menus and escorted a female friend and myself to a large circular booth on the second tier of the restaurant, which overlooks a main dining room and an open kitchen. As we slid into the deep, upholstered booths, my friend got caught up in the linens, and she nearly pulled the contents of the table to the floor.
Our server, who happened to be standing in the wings, laughed off what might have turned into an “I Love Lucy” slapstick routine. The encounter indicated the server had a sense of humor, but a few minutes later, when my friend politely asked for another splash of gin in her overly sweet cocktail, his roll-with-the-punches demeanor vanished. For the rest of the meal he avoided eye contact, which made it difficult to send back an enticing pork chop that was still raw in the middle.
The servers I encountered on two other occasions were much more pleasant, but not as skilled as one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber and price point. Trezo Mare opened in Briarcliff Village shopping center back in 2006 as an upscale seafood emporium. Several attempts were made to tweak the concept. In 2011, Michael Lee, formerly of Grand Street Cafe, took over as owner/operator to create an employee-owned and -operated establishment.
The décor remains quietly soothing and sophisticated, with a Tuscan palette of sepia, ochre, sage and burnt orange. Throw pillows soften any hard edges, and botanical prints are trellised up accent walls. The cavernous space is perfect for large parties, thanks to a big bar, private rooms and booths and tables that can be reconfigured into various shapes.
One night there was a party of 12 seated at one side of the dining room and another party of eight comfortably tucked into a circular alcove. During a visit in late September, a wedding reception was in full swing on the outdoor terrace. Yet I couldn’t help but conclude the larger parties are sucking some of the energy out of the dining experience for smaller parties of two, four or six.
I found the food coming out of chef Robert Padilla’s kitchen — he formerly worked at Grand Street, Lidia’s and Bluestem — was generally well-executed, but here, too, there were enough minor snafus to mar what could have been a first-class experience. Some of those missteps were attributable to service and some to the kitchen.
For instance, the P.E.I. mussels came in a fragrant white wine and lemon broth worth sopping up, except that our server didn’t offer a bread basket until I requested one.
I also enjoyed the tuna tartare appetizer layered with finely diced fresh asparagus then molded into a terrine. But I could have done without the gratuitous curl of Parmesan shaved over the top, and the thin, lavosh-style crackers were so salty they were inedible.
The restaurant name implies seafood, and the menu still includes a moderate sampling of fish and crustaceans. Oysters on the half shell were fresh and briny, although the random server who delivered them to the table referred to them as mussels. (The oysters have since been taken off the menu.)
Less appealing were the crabcakes — three overly moist circles that were less than cake-y and served with a red pepper coulis. The best seafood entrée I tried was the ahi tuna. Its chili- and coriander-encrusted exterior was seared to perfection, leaving a nearly raw center. The fish was served on a bed of succotash that included fresh corn, bacon and red bell pepper — though no lima beans.
Since my meals at Trezo Mare, about a quarter of the menu has been changed to reflect the fall-winter season. Instead of the seafood en papillote, which I enjoyed, the dish has been swapped out for a seafood cioppino. The exceptional braised kale that came with the wood-fired pork chop has morphed into Swiss chard, and the tender veal cheeks served with an ultra-rich black truffle risotto have been replaced by lamb.
While the kale was a hit, a truly unfortunate miss came with the 3-inch-thick wood-fired pork chop — it was still raw in the center. I must say that I don’t envy the cooks on the grill station who are tasked with trying to get this one right. Many restaurants offer massive pork chops, going for impressive presentation. The problem? The meat usually arrives at the table either under- or overcooked.
With difficulty I flagged my waiter down, only to have the chop come back still undercooked in the center. Proper use of a meat thermometer should help more kitchens hit the mark.
When I dined at Trezo Mare, servers brought desserts to the table on a tray, which evoked a rather chainlike feel. Lee later told me that the dessert options had been overhauled. The new menu includes such seasonally appropriate offerings as pumpkin crème brulee and seasonal fruit cobblers.
I can only hope the new options are easier to eat than the coconut-lime semifreddo. The creamy dessert looked enticing enough but was rock hard. Unable to push my fork through the frozen layers, I gave up, fearful I might wind up provoking another “I Love Lucy” moment.
What to drink
If you’re big into wine, Trezo Mare offers a wine locker club that includes storage, wine-tasting events and a bimonthly newsletter. So I was surprised when I asked a server if he could recommend one Malbec on the list over another, since the price points were comparable. He said he didn’t drink alcohol, but he would ask at the bar. He returned to say the more expensive bottle was the right choice.
Well, maybe. But why not send the wine director over?
Serving wine doesn’t need to be stuffy, either. But when the young waiter put his hand casually on my shoulder and innocently asked, “Hon, will you be tasting this?” I knew things had drifted into the too-casual category.
P.E.I. mussels (available from happy hour menu),
Hawaiian Ahi Tuna,
4105 N. Mulberry Drive
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday, (brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday), 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday (brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.)
Bruschetta, cheese plate, Caesar salad, roasted root vegetable salad with house-made mozzarella, Margherita pizza, an assortment of side dishes. But in a made-from-scratch kitchen, a variety of pastas and other dishes can suit special diets.
The restaurant offers a kids menu with pizzas, pastas, hamburgers, chicken tenders, grilled cheese, fish and chips and more.
Great place for a real conversation.
★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary
$ Average entree under $10; $$ Average entree under $20; $$$ Average entree under $30; $$$$ Average entree over $30
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for reviewer’s meals.