Thursday, November 19, 2009

Esca from New York

This is the last in my New York City vacation series. You can all breath a collective sigh of relief! In the truest sense of saving the best for last, I invite you all to revel in the splendor that is the chef's tasting menu at Esca.

Here's what Esca has to say about themselves: Created by James Beard award-winning chef Dave Pasternack, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in October 2000, ESCA is revered for its less-is-more approach, for its elegant simplicity. In his 3-star New York Times canonization of ESCA as the ultimate Italian seafood destination in New York, Frank Bruni coined Dave as "an honest-to-God fisherman, in love with the ocean, and ESCA is his ongoing ode to it."

Mario Batali? A 3-star Bruni review? Italian seafood in NYC? I smell perfect storm...

And a very fine meal is what I got when Preston and I sat down to the six course tasting menu, accompanied by a wine paired to each course for $120 per person.

We were first served an amuse-bouche of thin sliced sashimi grade tonno with sea salt, paprika, black pepper, and the same rich olive oil I remembered from my previous visit. We had chilled vodka with this as our cocktails were not quite empty from having initially sat down.

The first proper course was a Crudo del Mercato, which that day consisted of sea urchin. Now, I'm not going to lie; this was a stretch for me. The look of the food itself was odd but the innards on the tongue resemble a cross between an oyster and that weird gelatin that sometimes shows up in chicken stock. Funky. The flavor is somewhat like that of a mild oyster; you smell the flavor through your nose more than taste it on your tongue. But while the flavor was somewhat underwhelming it was also a new lesson in food, so very welcome in the end. This was the only unknown item to me on the menu, so I appreciated the chance to try it, even if it was to come to the conclusion that I would likely not order it again. The wine pairing was a NV prosecco from Flor, Veneto.

The next course was Burrata, a magnificent combination of mozzarella and cream -- the outside is firm, pure mozzarella and the inside is mixed with cream to create a heavenly, spreadable cheese. This was topped with a generous dollop of spoonbill caviar, a light grey egg from the American sturgeon. I'd say it most resembles Sevruga, for you Caspian purists. Preston and I both loved this course which was paired with Pecorino "Aries," Ciavolich 2008 Abbruzzo.

Next up was another strong showing from the kitchen: Seppiolini. These grilled whole cuttlefish were served with radicchio and chili oil. Now, I don't mind saying that this dish made me go out and buy a bottle of chili oil the next day I returned home -- I had forgotten how wonderful it can make seafood taste with just a drizzle. It also makes great salad dressings. But I digress. The waiter advised us to be very careful of the ink, as it had a tendency to sometimes squirt out (one is reminded of Grouch Marx and a fountain pen...), but luckily Preston and I emerged without that atramentous baptism! This course was inspirationally paired with Zelen, Guerila 2007 Slovenia.

The fourth course was the only complete miss: Orrecchiette pasta with mussels, razor clams, Berkshire pork sausage and rapini. Outrageously oversalted; I mean, this bowl would have attracted deer in the forest. It may have been Lot's wife in a previous life. Preston and I both found it to be inedible and the waiter, otherwise magnificent, two-stepped around the issue by blaming the brine in the razor clams and leaving the bowls sitting on the table, untouched, even after we'd complained.

I would have been more angry but two things happened at this point to brighten the evening. The first was the wine pour -- Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi "Domini," Pievalta 2006 Marche. This unknown-to-me wine was a very special white, rich in nose and flinty in its flavor. Yum.

The second good thing that happened was Rufus Wainwright came and plopped down right next to us. Hi Rufus!

Once we finally rid ourselves of the Bonneville salt flats, the next course arrived and signaled a return to form for the kitchen. The Spigola Striaca is a local wild striped bass with wild mushrooms and braised leeks. Again, an inspiration -- I'd never served fish with both of these items together and this was the perfect fish with which to pair these substantial representatives of the produce world. Meaty, substantial but flaky and melty in the mouth fish. Excellent. And paired with our fifth glass of wine -- Lacrima di Morro D'Alba, Conti Buscaretto 2008 Piemonte (finally, a Piemonte!) -- it was even better.

Finally our desserts were served. Mine -- a collection of gelati with a caramelized cookie -- looked like a sex organ. Maybe the chef thought I was one for complaining about the salty orecchiette. Maybe he is in Freudian analysis. Whatever the case, the tasting included other sweets such as mini-cookies, biscotti, and a pear tart with pear-mint sorbetto. And yes, mother of god, there was another wine pour: Moscato d'Asti, La Spinetta (one of the GREAT Italian houses), 2007 Piemonte.

Nearly two and half hours later, Preston and I were pleasantly full and really quite tight. We walked back to our hotel through the bright lights and madness that is Times Square, enjoying the memories of a generally fantastic meal (bar one course) and welcoming service (again, minus one stumble).

Tasting menus -- whether omakase, French, Italian or New American -- are exceptional affairs and I try to avail myself of them whenever possible. I like the mystery, the extra effort chefs put into them, and the thoughtful, educated pairings of wines (some unknown by me) with the food. It's like reading several short stories by an author you love -- you finish each little fully-formed adventure sensually intoxicated and ready for more, in just a little while.

I heartily recommend Esca. This is the second time I've dined there and, rest assured, there will be a third.

Do you have a tasting menu you remember fondly? Where was it and what was served?


  1. Hi. I'd email you this privately but I don't see a way to do that. So anyhow, feel free to delete this comment after reading it. With all due respect, I would like to suggest that you find and use a means of color correcting your photos--the ones taken in restaurants, specifically. You may be surprised how much nicer photos taken under tungsten look with a little color balance adjustment.

  2. "Outrageously oversalted; I mean, this bowl would have attracted deer in the forest. It may have been Lot's wife in a previous life."

    that's funny.