“There are no baby eels,” our server solemnly announced.
I was crestfallen. But, only for a second.
Good, that meant that I could order the “Fegatini di Pescatrice,” monkfish liver, as an antipasto. Or, did I want the “Fritti” – crispy halibut cheek? But it’s ramp season, and there was an entire antipasto devoted to ramps on the menu too.
Why couldn’t they just have baby eels?
Thankfully, I had three other stomachs along with me to share the load.
Esca is one of those restaurants that I’ve never heard disparaged by anyone I know and trust. In fact, every report seems to brim with excitement and positive energy. It’s considered by many to be the second best (and some say better) seafood/fish restaurant in New York to Le Bernardin. Many also claim it to be their favorite of the Batali and Bastianich empire of restaurants, which is saying a lot given that I have had wonderful meals at their other eateries, like Babbo and Otto, and Batali’s Nusser-run Casa Mono. Despite all of its virtues, Esca has sadly never made it onto my oft-packed schedule of reservations when I whirl through New York.
But, on this last trip, I made it a priority.
Chef David Pasternack’s cookbook, “The Young Man and the Sea,” should be required reading for everyone who visits Esca. Not only does the cookbook offer a glimpse at the restaurant’s menu – almost everything we ordered and noticed on the menu is in the cookbook – it offers insight into the chef’s philosophy, approach, respect and attitude for seafood. It conveys Pasternacks’ style and personality, which is palpable in the dining room and in the food.
Pasternack’s success relies on freshness and simplicity. Take the bluefish (“Pesce Sera“) that my friend ordered as a secondo, it was so buttery and clean-tasting that you’d never guess it was the oily fish that is so often heavy, greasy, and, well, fishy. The fact that the skin was perfectly-crisped seemed almost of minor importance compared with the wonderfulness of the flesh. The accompanying medley of fiddleheads, asparagus and sugar snap peas sent me into a petite conniption – can Spring last all year, please?
And, on it went, dish after dish, everything was fresh, flavorful, and simply treated. There’s nothing fancy, there’s nothing complicated. The food speaks for itself.
But, that can be a problem when the main ingredient is less than optimal, like the monkfish liver I had been so excited about. It was slightly off, muddy and dirty-tasting. The lobe of seared liver was presented on a bed of wild greens hiding nuggets of soft, sweet dates dressed with a grassy-sweet dandelion honey vinaigrette. The slightly wilted salad was dotted with bits of what appeared to be cracked wheat.
Monkfish liver can be fatty in a way that, like foie gras, but unlike veal liver, can be greasy (which is why I prefer foie gras au torchon and Japanese ankimo over seared foie/monkfish liver – although I do love calf’s liver fried with onions).
This was greasy. (I know, it’s supposed to be greasy.) And, like many foie gras presentations, the monkfish liver was cast with sweet accompaniments. The dates, which can be cloyingly rich on their own, tended to put the already heavy composition over the top. Together with the off flavor of the liver, the sweetness affected a taste slightly foul.
The dish would have been more successful had the sweet-to-tartness ratio in the vinaigrette been increased. Are the Japanese the only people who know how to make monkfish liver taste good? (This is not a rhetorical question. If you know of a successful non-Japanese preparation (or restaurant that serves a successful preparation) of monkfish liver, please let me know.)
While the rest of our antipasti were much more enjoyable, I can’t say that any one of the five we ordered was outstanding. With the exception of the monkfish liver, I’d say that they were all solidly good. Maybe the “Prosciutto d’Orca” – house-cured goose (I have no idea why it’s on the menu, or why my friend ordered it at a fish restaurant) was less than interesting. Miserly small flakes of thinly shaved meat garnished fat logs of California asparagus, which seemed to be the focus of that dish.
The crudi, for which Pasternack is best known, was very fresh. But, at this point in our world’s culinary development, quite boring. Perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, this trio of raw fish, slightly marinated with olive oil and a touch of acid, might have been revolutionary. Now, it just seems like raw fish slightly marinated with olive oil and a touch of acid. This is not to understate the freshness and simplicity (see the theme here?) of the three squares of meat; the bluefish and bonito, especially, had excellent flavor and texture. The former was topped with a sliver of jalepeno pepper, the latter treated with citrus. I’ve just realized that I prefer my raw fish left alone, or draped over vinegary rice.
But, before you think I’m anti-Italian, or pro-Japanese, I hasten to add that the Japanese definitely don’t have crostini in their culinary arsenal, especially not ones crowned with grilled ramps and flocked with tuna bottarga. That was probably the most enjoyable antipasto. The slab of bread was crusty and rustic, smoldering with grill marks (which, is also what made the mini-crostini topped with a warm white bean and mackerel salad, given as a pre-meal lagniappe, so great). The ramps, which were twirled on top, were slightly mature, and therefore hard to cut and chew. But, this fork-and-knife job was redeemed by undying flavor and the seasonal joy of ramps.
Primi offered, by far, the most exciting and best dishes of our lunch. Everyone of the pastas we ordered are classic Esca dishes; they are all in Pasternack’s cookbook. I cannot emphasize how well the pasta was made and cooked – all of it. I’m not surprised given that the pasta is a (if not “the”) forte of the Bastianich-Batali restaurants.
Heat played an important, if not starring role in my two favorite pasta dishes.
“Spaghetti” with chili, mint and a one-pound lobster (one-pound!!!), was sauced with a sweet tomato marinara spiked with chili heat counter-balanced by herbaceous, sweet flecks of mint. Mint and chili with tomato and lobster. Who knew it could be so good? The sizable threads of lobster corral laced throughout were most rewarding.
“Linguine” with Mahogany clams would have only been a shadow of the dish that it is had it not been spiked with (a single) chili pepper. I will not soon forget the heavily-infused white wine sauce, which was magnificent.
“Bigoli,” thick whole wheat spaghetti, with sardines and walnuts was also very good. I liked the thick noodle texture. It was lusty, if not a bit heavy. I could only have a couple of small bites.
The “Maccheroni alla Chitarra” with sea urchin and crab meat, in my opinion, was, surprisingly, the weakest of the four primi. I like to taste sea urchin in a big bad way. Here, it’s mixed in with a (lot of) butter for the sauce. However, the generous serving of lump crab meat laced throughout the dish was quite rewarding.
Secondi were good, but nothing particularly celebratory, except, perhaps the “Uova di Cheppia,” which, like ramps and morel, is a seasonal highlight that one just can’t pass over. The shad roe was pan-fried, sheathed in an impossibly thin crust. The inside was perfectly done; a consistency not unlike thick, warm grits: sturdy, textured, but creamy. The side of pickled vegetables really helped cut the richness.
Of course, I was familiar with shad roe. I love it. But, my friend who ordered it (due to my enthusiasm, but more so because they had *just* sold the last (five orders of) soft shell crabs, which my friend had all but put in an order for, to a table of octogenarians next to ours) had never had shad roe before. Sadly, he didn’t care for it. We should have heeded Pasternack’s warning: “Shad roe, is not for everyone. Like I tell my waiters, ‘Don’t oversell shad roe. If the customers know what it is, let them order it. If they don’t know, let them find out about it somewhere else.'”
My whole grilled porgy (“Orata Americana Per Uno;” it’s also offered “Per Duo” – for two) was nicely accomplished. They offered to fillet the fish, but I declined. The skin was crispy and thin, the flesh moist and clean. I wish they gave me more salsa verde; a puree of herbs, olive oil, and vinegar, it was the perfect condiment (I’m sure I could have asked for more, but I didn’t need it, as I only ate a fraction of the fish, given that I was having a (large) dinner at Jean Georges later that evening).
“Polipo” (grilled octopus) was as good as at any other Bastianich-Batali restaurant I’ve been to. That is to say, it was shockingly soft and tender. The tentacles came coiled on heap of giant corona beans whose creamy richness was offset by preserved lemon and woodsy-fragrant rosemary vinaigrette.
“Contorni“ were done and presented with like-minded simplicity. We chose an assortment of vegetables, all simply marinated and grilled with olive oil, that included carrots, beets, spring onions, mushrooms and green beans.
Esca, as its name (which means “bait” in Italian) implies, offers a tempting bite of Italian cuisine. Not all of the dishes are completely authentic. But, in the vein of Batali’s Italian cooking, Pasternack captures the essence, the flavor, the technique, the style, and the spirit of Italian cuisine. He uses local products (I’m not sure if ramps or shad, or Orata Americana for that matter, are indigenous to Italy) with an Italian mind. An Italian might not recognize the food as Italian, but would find it familiar and accept it; they’d like it, too.
Regardless, Pasternack’s cooking has me hook, line, and sinker. I wasn’t doing cartwheels out of the restaurant. But, I don’t think this type of food is supposed to prompt such a response. (After antipasti, primi, and secondi with contorni, such a reaction might actually be dangerous, if possible at all.) Esca’s food is very fresh, it’s properly-treated, well-executed, and it speaks for itself. For that, I’d happily return – especially for the price. The most expensive item we ordered (by $5) was the “Spaghetti,” which given that it included a one-pound lobster, was very reasonable at $30.
A note on service: It was attentive and polite, if not unnecessarily placating at points (maybe the theater district crowd expects the theatrics?). There was a noticeably long wait between primi and secondi.
My biggest regret about my lunch at Esca is that we didn’t stick around for dessert. Everyone I knew told me I could skip it – especially given my rather full eating schedule. And, it’s not like they had olive oil gelato on the menu (they didn’t, I asked) either. However, had I any idea just how pathetic the pastries at Bouchon Bakery are these days, I would have happily taken dessert at Esca. Actually, I now REALLY regret that I didn’t stop my friends on our way to the Time Warner Center and insisted that we had dessert at kyotofu instead of just standing at the window and drooling at the menu.
All of the photos from this meal can be found on my Flickr account.
402 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036