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March Restaurant: Any Month of the Year!

On an evening in early in August we walked over to East 58th Street a block off the East River to a lovely little brownstone sitting behind a black wrought iron gate. Above the doorway, the word “MARCH” was spelled out in sturdy capital letters. “The family name from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women,’” thought one of us. “The month of March,” thought the other. But “march in” is what we did past a tiny flagstone patio whose garden was abloom with tall purple hostos into a sparkling jewel of a restaurant in that part of Manhattan where Midtown is about to give way to the Upper East Side.

Inside, a welcoming fireplace yielded to a long deep room with walls painted a pale yellow and hung with 19th century Florentine botanical prints. Comfortable banquettes were upholstered in bold Bauhaus patterns. Tables were covered with crisp white linens, each lit by a single candle beneath a miniature lampshade and set with white Limoges plates bordered with a delicate lemon and green pineapple design. We had reserved an outdoor table but as the evening turned out to be typical New York August hot and humid, we swiftly agreed when headwaiter Chuck Mason suggested interior dining would be more comfortable and followed him beneath a chandelier we would swear was Lalique to a table just before the glass-roofed mezzanine dining room where French doors lead to the terrace. Before we could settle in, however, we had to have a peek. Under the misty sky, six tables were arranged on a porcelain-tiled floor that overlooked a small garden. Beyond we could see the Bridge Market beneath the Queensborough Bridge and glimpse the Roosevelt Island Tramway off in the distance.  If the interior of March had a European ambience, the view from the terrace clearly stated “New York, New York.”

A welcoming entrance
A welcoming entrance

View of Bridge Market from March’s dining terrace
View of Bridge Market from March’s dining terrace

Which came to be a kind of metaphor for the sophisticated and eclectic March whose cuisine co-owners Wayne Nish and Joseph Scalice label “Contemporary American.” International influences abound on the March menu, but that’s what being American is all about, especially for Wayne, the son of a Norwegian-Japanese father and Maltese mother who was doing “fusion cuisine” when March first opened back in 1990.

 Both Wayne and Joseph grew up in New York. Wayne is March’s chef; Joseph its wine director. Chuck Mason, who’s from Wisconsin, doubles as floor manager and maitre d’. “I came on board in 1994 as assistant wine manager,” the ruggedly handsome Mason said. “Once the restaurant reopened after it had closed for renovation several years ago, they needed one person on the floor to direct traffic. So here I am.” 

Chuck Mason, March’s ruggedly handsome maitre d’
Chuck Mason, March’s ruggedly handsome maitre d’

Chuck directed us through the multi-course March dining experience which is novel not only in its wonderfully unexpected taste combinations but in the arrangements of  its servings. He suggested we begin with a glass of Bollinger “R.D.” Brut to set the appropriately festive mood and as we consumed an amuse bouche of a crepe so light it almost wasn’t there filled with a briny mixture of lobster, black truffles, and shallots, he presented the extensive March menu and explained the March process.

“Wayne has abandoned the old fashioned concept of large appetizer, large entrée and dessert in favor of a four to seven course-dinner of appetizer size, the last course always being reserved for dessert,” he said directing us to pages 2 and 3 where twenty six intriguing options were listed. “You needn’t be intimidated by a seven course menu; it’s not overwhelming. But it does sneak up on you.

“However, if you don’t want to make decisions yourself, turn to the first page,” he added. “Here is a five course dual tasting menu meant to be shared by a couple. Each course has two dishes selected by Wayne and a wine selected by Joseph.”

Well, we thought, this is something we can handle. Several months ago in Istanbul, we’d managed a three-cuisine menu that approached the size of a novella. Now we flipped back to page one and studied the eight offerings and dessert sampler at the bottom. Enticing. But then again, maybe too much.

“We’ll do the four courses,” we told Chuck.

“In that case, you should select your own wine,” he said and placed March’s substantial and diverse award-winning wine list before us.

Now this was intimidating. Later that evening, we’d get to see Joseph’s wine cellar where 4,500 bottles are neatly stored. For the moment, we turned past the champagnes, sherries and sakes to a collection of American whites and reds from Napa and Somona as well as other California counties and also Pennsylvania, Oregon, New York, even Rhode Island; a hefty French list with excellent regional selections; a sampling from Australia and New Zealand; Austria, Germany and Switzerland; Spain, Portugal, and Italy; South America and South Africa. Whew! Narrowing the overwhelming to the considerable, we surrendered to a longing for a crisp white Burgundy this summer evening and with Chuck’s assistance settled on the Chassagne-Montrachet, Henri Prudhon les Chenevottes 1998.

Looking up to March’s mezzanine dining room
Looking up to March’s mezzanine dining room

And down,  to March’s north dining room
And down,  to March’s north dining room

At this point, however, he suggested we postpone the Burgundy in order to  sample two varieties of sake to accompany our first course. Sake? The warm Japanese rice wine?  “Not warm,” Chuck said. “In the past the sakes were served warm because they were too harsh on the palate, but these are very delicate in flavoring and best served chilled.”

Shirataki and Jozen Mizunogotoshi, ginjos – a word which refers to the milling of the grain -- were served in frosty crystal stemware. Both were aromatic with wonderful fruity flavors and perfect pairings with sashimi -- a translucent hake with white soy sauce and sprinkled with white sesame seeds and chives; and fettuccine with tiny clams and spicy cod roe.

“Sakes have wonderful stories that go along with them,” Chuck told us. “The Shirataki is named for a lake that is fed by a waterfall that is fed that is fed by newly fallen melted snow.  Keep that in mind as you taste. As you would imagine, it’s very clean.”

We were beginning to understand the uniqueness of the March experience. Our first courses, one of Asian, the other of Italian origin, had been exquisitely served.  Small in size, they demanded a savoring of each mouthful, their delectable flavors enhanced by the Japanese rice wine we had long eschewed but which now had taken on a completely new dimension.             

Appetites were whetted, but miles remained to March. Three canopies appeared: a miniature octopus salad with cucumber, a single water chestnut with poached salmon, one shrimp wrapped in cucumber and tomato slice – beautiful presentations of miniature delicacies. A waiter came by with a selection of fragrant, warm rolls. The white burgundy was uncorked and stood in wait for the second course: delectable chanterelles with a poached quail egg and avocado yogurt for one; soft shelled crabs with corn juice for the other.

For the third course, we both settled on the North Atlantic lobster which Chuck called “one of the most extraordinary dishes on the menu.” Poached and served out of the shell in a light Rhone Valley wine sauce, served with polenta and garnished with fennel, it was truly sublime.

Dining at March this summer evening of the year 2001, we tried to imagine what a meal in this very brownstone might have been like around the turn of the last century. Banquets of the sort described by Edith Wharton or Henry James came to mind, endless courses of staggering portions. How far the March concept is from the gluttony of the Gilded Age. Focusing on exceptional taste combinations, it leads diners to savor fine and imaginative food, leaving them satisfied but not sated.

March’s kitchen where Wayne Nish works his alchemy
March’s kitchen where Wayne Nish works his alchemy

The cheese trolley rolled by. We sampled a tangy goat cheese with black ash throughout, a firm Swiss-French gruyere, a strong stilton. Then fresh fruits in a Japanese apple nectar arrived followed by an impossible to resist but reasonably small portion of Baked Alaska with espresso ice cream and toasted almonds, and finally, lest we think we were getting off guilt free, a heavenly rich chocolate cake.

 During dinner and afterwards when we toured the multi level dining areas, we noticed how some parties were getting the full explanation of the March process while many were obvious veterans of the experience and needed no guidance. Regulars abound in this romantic setting, Chuck had told us.  As one would expect, most are from the New York area but repeat guests come from distant places as well.

We expect to join that throng. Pages 2 and 3 of the March menu came to mind, those twenty odd suggestions we had by-passed: the maitake mushrooms poached in parsnip broth with fava beans, and the lobster custard with scallops, and the barely cooked Canadian salmon with braised leeks in white miso, and the sautéed duck breast with sweet soy sauce and Chinese crème fraiche. . . Maybe next time we’ll brave a five or even six courser.

But then, Wayne is known to change the menu. Will all these dishes be there in September? On the other hand, the new season is bound to bring new creations, new taste sensations equally worth the sampling.  September, October, November, December . . .  through all the months, we feel safe in saying March is worth a visit any time of the year.

March
405 East 58 Street
New York, NY 10022

Phone: 212 754-6272

  • Four courses $72        with wines $116

  • Five courses $90         with wines $145

  • Six courses $108         with wines $174

  • Seven courses $126     with wines $203

Photos by: Harvey Frommer  

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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