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.

Valentine’s Day Dinner at Insieme

Fancy dinners are funny things: you think you have to plan for them, make reservations, get dressed up, when in fact the idea of a “fancy dinner” is just a construct; the truth is, a talented chef with a nice restaurant wants nothing more than for you to pop in at the spur of the moment and that’s precisely what Craig and I did last night after seeing a fascinating new musical called Passing Strange at the Belasco. I remembered that Marco Canora, the chef at Hearth whom I met at the Taste of New York event earlier this year, opened a new place across from Mamma Mia called Insieme and after the show I said: “Heck, it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s have a nice dinner.”

So we popped into Insieme and Craig was intimidated at first because people were dressy in suits and such and we were wearing jeans and he was unshaven, but we quickly got over that, especially later when Marco came out to say hi. He’s a wonderful guy–not pretentious, but super knowledgeable and his food reflects that. We loved the little bites they sent out first–a radish with anchovy-flavored olive oil, baccala on a potato–but the best, by far, was the pasta course. Craig, who’s not keen on hyperbole, declared this dish one of the best things he’s ever eaten in his life:


The picture doesn’t do it justice, but that’s a pear risotto with blue cheese and hazelnuts. Marco told us it had pear cider in it, as well as actual pears, but what made it great, according to Craig, was the contrast of the sweet pear and the savory blue cheese. I took a bite and I had to concur, it was fantastic, though I was pretty in love with my chestnut fettuchini with venison ragu and pomegranate.

So, in conclusion, if you have some spare change in your pocket and you’re near a nice restaurant but you’re scared to go because you’re not dressy enough or you think you need to make a reservation, just pop in. The food business is a rough business, and chefs–like all artists–need your patronage. Plus, if it’s Valentine’s Day, you’re supposed to go to a nice meal anyway. I’m glad we had ours at Insieme.


We leave Seattle for a moment to talk about Anthos, where I ate with my parents a few weeks ago. I wasn’t going to write about it–not because I didn’t like it, but because the room was so dark and my pictures didn’t come out so great and I wanted to do the food justice–but then I just discovered this post on The Food Network blog where one of the editors spotted me there eating! Isn’t that strange? Now I know how Lindsay Lohan feels–except she’s rarely caught eating. Since the editor anticipated my post about it, I’ve decided to do a quick one.

The food at Anthos is adventurous and exciting. I remember, in particular, this absolutely bizarre first course I had: a long thin egg noodle topped with (you won’t believe this) sauteed snails and rabbit. Seriously. It’s called Hilopita and it’s described on the menu as: “Egg noodle, braised rabbit, snails, black truffle, manouri cheese.” Strangely enough, it all comes together the way that celebrity faces come together on Conan O’Brian’s “If They Mated.” (Anyone want to attempt an image of a half-rabbit half-snail?)

The rest of the food was pretty dynamite too, but Frank Bruni has a point about the room: it’s a depressing space. I didn’t want to say it, but there you have it. Near the front, natural light comes in through the windows but as you go further and further back you feel like you’re in a very very upscale airport diner. The fact that the kitchen is right near most of the tables makes the evening stressful; and the fact that the bathroom is right there too makes it even worse. But the food conquers all. We actually met the chef, Michael Psilakis, because our waiter detected that we were really enthusiastic about what we ate. Chef Psilakis, like most deeply talented, artistic chefs, is a really down-to-earth guy with no pretense about him. Remarkably, he’s entirely self-taught. We talked about that and about the difficulties of running a restaurant (his last place, Dona, closed after a new building owner forced him out–you can read about that here). After a story like that, you just want to root for Chef Psilakis. Luckily, he has the city’s most powerful critic on his side. (For proof, read Bruni’s Anthos review.) And now he has me on his side too. I may not be a formal food critic, but I was spotted by The Food Network. And that counts for something, right?

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