Recently, my dad headed to the city on a business trip and asked me and my sister to meet him for dinner. Naturally, I immediately accepted his offer. I could not wait to spend time with him and try a new restaurant in the city. He even let me pick where we would go! I did some research, and chose Esca. About a ten minute walk from the bright lights of Times Square, Esca is tucked away on 43rd Street and 9th Avenue, far enough away from the tourist trap restaurants on Broadway, but still easily accessible to anyone wanting a classy meal. Plus, it was on Eater’s list of the 38 essential New York City restaurants for 2012. It turned out to be a phenomenal choice.
Esca was opened in 2000 by the famous Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and James Beard award-winning chef Dave Pasternack. Described as a southern Italian trattoria, it specializes in all things seafood. It is particularly known for its crudo, or raw fish preparations. Esca received three stars from the New York Times in 2007, making quite a reputation for itself. I was looking forward to seeing if it had lived up to it.
Walking into Esca, my nose buds were immediately overwhelmed with the intoxicating smell of the sea. I wanted to sit down and eat right then and there, but I arrived earlier than our reservation to meet my dad for drinks. We sat at the bar and were given wine recommendations by an extremely knowledgeable and friendly bartender. We sipped on a glass each of a crisp white wine and chatted as I scoped out the restaurant. Intimate and cozy, with wood floors and lemon colored walls, Esca is unadorned and simple. Plus, in the center of the restaurant, there is a long table, where servers prepare whole fish tableside, an intricate technique that most restaurants do not do anymore, but one that is so beautiful and intriguing to watch.
My sister arrived to meet us, and we were seated. Our waiter introduced himself and gave us each a menu, and then proceeded to explain it to us. This was helpful, because it was extensive, and full of different options. He had an absolutely infectious personality, and was delightfully entertaining. He sold us on certain menu choices, and made us feel comfortable and excited about our meal. We were eager to try the house specialty: branzino for three, a whole sea bass cooked in a sea salt crust. Sadly, the fish sold out right before we ordered. I settled on the crudo tasting and the mahi mahi served with preserved lemon. Between courses, we all decided to split the gnocchi di ricotta. I sipped the refreshing Aperol spritzer that I ordered as an aperitif, and eagerly awaited my meal. I loved this drink. The fizzy Prosecco mixed with the bittersweet orange liquor was addictive.
I had never tasted crudo before, but now I can safely say that after my experience at Esca, I am a passionate fan of it. In the flight that I ordered, I was able to taste six different raw fish preparations that took my taste buds on an incredible journey. I started by slurping down a giant briny, fat oyster from Montauk, and then moved onto ruby red shrimp. These intensely sweet shrimp were extraordinarily well balanced with just the right touch of added acidity. I then sampled a piece of raw halibut belly, which was lightly kissed with sunflower oil, giving the fish a slightly nutty taste which, mixed with the fattiness of the belly, was very pleasing. The nutty theme continued with a piece of mahi mahi with crushed almonds. This was the one piece of fish I was not blown away by. It was nice, but I lost the delicate taste of the fish in a punch of almond flavor. That nuttiness was immediately erased after tasting the piece of Spanish mackerel with pickled jalapeño, which was slightly sour and possibly the most interesting preparation I tried. The flight finally came to an end with a razor clam ceviche served on the shell with chilis, scallion, and mint. It was a genius finish, packing a serious heat and the ideal level of acidity. It cleansed my palate and prepared me to continue my meal.
While the crudo was definitely the highest point of the tasting experience, the rest of it did not disappoint. I ate the best gnocchi I have ever tasted. Generally heavy and filling, these were light and airy, served with a simple tomato sauce and gooey buffalo mozzarella cheese. I finished with the mahi mahi with preserved lemon. It was not mind-blowing, but it was cooked perfectly and the lemon helped nurse out the subtle flavor of the fish.
I would highly recommend Esca to anyone who loves seafood. Yes, it is pricey, but the quality of product and the service you will experience there are well worth it. You can tell by eating there just how much the chefs adore fish, and how they believe the best way to serve it is as is, no frills, whether it is sliced raw, or cooked. Every bite is like a taste of the ocean, and the freshness, seasoning, and textures I experienced were impeccable.
Photo Credit: Esca