It’s hard to write about Esca because Esca doesn’t seem real. The first time I ate there, it was for Chapter 8 of my book, the chapter where I met Ruth Reichl for lunch. I was so nervous that day, so focused on the person I was about to meet, that the restaurant didn’t feel like a real restaurant, it felt like a movie set, assembled for this scene in which I was about to participate.
Subsequently, I took Craig there for dinner after seeing a Broadway show. I tried to convince him it wouldn’t be expensive, that it wasn’t fancy, it was casual, that it was totally in our range. It was an absolute lie but we loved it and pretended that the check at the end was just a prop, much like the restaurant was just a movie set.
Now, if I say the word “Esca” after seeing a Broadway show it’s like saying a dirty word or casting a magic spell. A dirty word because spending that kind of money without occasion is obscene; a magic spell because once you say the word, it’s hard not to go there. I didn’t care, however, on a night two weeks ago after Craig and I saw the Broadway play, “Speed-The-Plow.” I uttered the word “Esca” and cosmic forces sent us hurtling down 9th Avenue to 42nd street, where Esca sat waiting for us, ready to indulge us once more.
Esca is a fish restaurant and its chef/owner, David Pasternack, is a fisherman. There was a fantastic profile of him in The New Yorker a few years ago, written by Mark Singer, that you can read here. Suffice it to say, if you like fish: Esca is your restaurant.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but my memory of this meal is somewhat blurry. I have the pictures I’m about to share with you, but I can’t remember precisely what everything is. That’s what Esca does to you, though; you go there and it’s like you’re not in a real place. You’re transported and that’s what makes it so powerful. Life moves at a different speed inside its walls, the world fades away and you completely forget you’re in midtown Manhattan one block away from The Port Authority.
We had a tasting menu. It was wildly indulgent, yes, but everything on the tasting menu looked so wonderful that I did the math and it was a better value than ordering a la carte. (At least, I convinced myself it was.) The meal started, as all Esca meals should start, with the crudo–or raw fish.
See, I don’t remember what kind of fish that is, but I do remember this: it was garnished with fried bits of the fish skin. It was a really beautiful first course; elegant and simple and dressed with just the right amount of olive oil.
Then came one of my favorite esoteric foods: monkfish liver.
They serve monkfish liver at Prune too and at both places, it’s served like foie gras. And that’s what it is, essentially, except it’s foie gras by way of the ocean. That’s why I love it so much, for that peculiar marriage of land and sea, of organ and ocean water. You must try it in your lifetime; put it on your bucket list.
Now this was SERIOUSLY good: that’s pasta with crab and sea urchin.
The sea urchin makes the pasta creamy, the crab gives it substance. I love this dish and I think it symbolizes everything I love about Esca; it’s rustic enough to be comforting but elegant enough to be special.
Here’s where I get a bit lost. I’m pretty sure this is bass and I’m very sure it was served on pumpkin puree and that we really enjoyed it:
Then, after I said hello to Chef Pasternack on my way to the bathroom (I met him when I did that Anthony Bourdain interview, remember?) he sent over this extra course: it was a kind of Mahi Mahi served with peperonata. The fish’s flesh was so moist, so tender, it was like a work of art.
The last fish course (we were about to keel over, no pun intended (because of “keel,” get it?)) was another bass, this one served with root vegetables:
We took deep breaths and then made room for the cheese course, another simple, elegant presentation: a scoop of fresh ricotta with honey on a palte.
Isn’t that lovely?
And then the obligatory chocolate dessert:
And, of course, a trio of sorbets:
Ok, they were trying to kill us. And I wouldn’t have minded: if you had to die in any New York restaurant, Esca would be a good choice. It already feels like an afterlife of sorts; calming, peaceful, vaguely Mediterranean. And if the food is nearly this good in the afterlife, losing one’s life wouldn’t be such a tragedy. In fact, many would probably hasten the process just to secure a table.
So, next time you’re in the theater district after seeing a play, carefully consider what word you utter to the person you’re standing with. If you want to save money and eat something pedestrian, stay mum; but if you want the evening to end on notes of gastronomical, oceanic ecstasy, say “Esca” and find yourself propelled down 9th Ave. to a strange restaurant, one that doesn’t seem quite real, but one that will quickly become one of your favorite restaurants in the city. It’s certainly one of mine.
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