I don't usually recommend restaurants near Times Square; but Esca has been on my list for quite some time. Should I wait till I'm in the theatre district seeing a play to visit Esca? No, I couldn't put it off any longer. Esca, located at 43rd and 9th is a Mario Batali restaurant that specializes in southern Italian cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. I didn't realize it was part of the Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich empire untill about a year ago when Batali made that Hitler banker joke and business started boycotting his restaurants. But Esca's figurehead and executive chef is Dave Pasternack who has been coined the "fish whisperer" by critics such as Frank Bruni. Sure its a Batali restaurant; but I'm there to see chef Pasternack at work. You might have heard of Dave Pasternack through celebrated reviews or even on TV--I know he's good friends with Anthony Bourdain and often appears on No Reservations. But enough about his celebrity status and onto what got him there: his food.
Cannelini beans on a crostini was a nice start as we settled into our banquette. It was a bit awkward that our table was by the front door; but the restaurant itself is not very big. Ambiance and decor lacked this white table cloth fish heaven; but I think the food and company made up for it. Baby Octopus and a selection of six crudo made a good introduction to lunch. The octopus was braised till tender and then charred for that wonderful texture so important for good octopus. House cured salmon roe, sea urchin from Maine, and bay scallops all made appearances in the crudo selection. Pasternack showed his expertise in balancing beautiful flavors while still maintaining the essence of the sea. A beautiful Grillo from Sicily wasn't my first choice for wine; but turned out to be a good recommendation.
The service wasn't perfect and certain things caught my attention; but it was nothing that altered our experience. I could understand our server not knowing the wines by the bottle and sending over a college; but that server disappearing after our last course was a bit strange. I usually like a server to stick with his/her table untill they have left. It wasn't a big deal at all, just something that caught me as strange for a highly regarded (NYT 3 star) restaurant.
Entrees followed and proved to be more evidence that Pasternack might actually be a "fish whisperer". Scallops were cooked beautifully with a nice sear and a whole branzino made Ed a happy camper. An affogato with chunks of brownie and toffee was an easy choice for me while Ed got the bread pudding with rice pudding flavored gelato.
All in all, lunch at Esca was a great success. We had some good wine, awesome food, and the company just put it over the top. "Would you come back here," asked Ed. Yes, I think so--there's so much more I want to try. Maybe next time I'm in the area.