Before getting to the heart of the post, let me first apologize for the crappy cell phone camera pictures. But you get what you pay for (until someone is willing to buy me a camera and I decide that I'm comfortable taking photos in restaurants). However, to combat the lack of pretty pictures, I present the tenuously relevant video for "Separate Ways" by Journey, which was playing over the speakers when we first sat down (with Eighties greatest hits the rest of the night as well).
I sincerely hope that it's now stuck in your head (along with the mental image of Steve Perry "breakin' the chains" over and over again). Regardless, the food from Chef Dave Pasternack (see this New Yorker profile, which is a fantastic read) and owners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich was much better than the music.
Almost immediately after being seated we were presented with an amuse of chickpeas, oil and preserved mackarel bruschetta, which, unsurprisingly tasted like hummus with fish.
The crudo flight seemed to be the most obvious way to start my meal. Composed of six different crudos served three at a time, the flight showcases the freshest offerings from Chef Pasternack.
Cruddy crudo picture.
Fluke with radish was perfectly paired (plus I love fluke), although the oyster was nothing special. Spanish mackerel with crushed almonds was easily the winner, with the acidity from the lemon registering first, followed by the almonds mellowing everything out. My other two favorites were yellowfin tuna with pickled jalapenos and a diver scallop in lemon with caviar on top. I can't resist the sweetness from a great piece of raw scallop. I don't remember the last one, but I'm sure it was like the others (only significantly less memorable).
For their appetizers, my dad ordered fritti, local steamers, rock shrimp, potato chips and lemon jam. Everything was expertly fried (and fresh), but the potato chips are what stood out for me.
Apparently my mother really loves fish soup (she'd zeroed in on the mussel soup at Aldea the night before). Zupa de pesca amalfitana was a slightly spicy tomato and fish based soup studded with fresh seafood and topped with a toasted baguette. Can't go wrong with this.
My parents split the whole branzino cooked in salt crust, whose simple, yet elegant presentation was the highlight of the evening. The branzino was perfectly cooked and moist throughout-- all it needed was a squirt of lemon.
How great of a picture is that? My mom managed to not only get a picture of the fish being de-crusted and plated, but a full shot of the waiter's groin as well.
In keeping with the sea urchin theme of the week, I ordered the maccheroni alla chitarra with sea urchin and crab. The pasta was perfectly al dente, while chunks of crab mingled with the urchin, which had been reduced to a viscous, briny sauce. You get the full effect of sea urchin, but I felt the dish was missing something (my dad said cheese, but I shushed him because Dave Pasternack was in earshot. Cheese is verboten!) Really though, it could have used some crushed red pepper flakes or something to break up what ultimately became somewhat monotonous.
Still sick, I ordered tea with my dessert (I've never had water that scalding hot before) from their surprisingly broad selection. I had instant buyer's remorse from my mascarpone cheesecake, but it was pretty good, especially with the grapes and nuts accompanying it. My dad, on the other hand, inhaled his mocha panna cotta within a minute, so I can only assume it was good as I didn't even get a taste. I looked up from my cheesecake (only two bites in) and he was scraping up the remainder of the sauce with his spoon. He never does that, so you can safely assume that the panna cotta is probably pretty good. Cookies were great (anything with pistachio in it, especially biscotti, are impossible for me to resist).
So in eating at Esca, I guess, like Steve Perry, I broke the chains that bound me and finally-- aw forget it that's a terrible analogy. The only time people talk/think about Journey nowadays is when it's belted out in a shitty bar at 3 AM. Esca is simply too good to be compared with Journey, and if you disagree, we may have to go our separate ways (wow, that might have been worse).
402 W 43d (btwn 9th and 10th Ave)
NY, NY 10036