We met some friends here for lunch today. One was very interested in both Italian food and seafood, so this seemed like a good bet. The restaurant is set back from the corner of the street a bit and I nearly walked past it, but walking inside was transporting. I didn't feel like I was in Midtown West once we walked in, to delicious smells of the vegetable serving platters and the serving station. A quick peek of the menu showed many items boasting lots of wonderful spring items: fresh peas, asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps, which was delightful.
The amuse was a crostini of mackerel and white beans and red onions. Very good and seemed like a classic Italian combination. I picked at my buttery and salt whole wheat piece of focaccia, waiting for the food to arrive. We started with some shared appetizers. We ordered two flights of the crudo sampling (red snapper, bonito, and bluefish). At lunch, they only offer this three type sampling, instead of the full crudo menu, but we were undeterred. The quality of the fish was really nice but I didn't taste too much of the fish itself because of the little pools of olive oil each piece was sitting in. Personally, I think I prefer more simply prepared raw fish, as there was just too much olive oil for my liking. I suppose I should stick with sushi! We also shared a nicely seared, warm monkfish liver with dates. It was rich, decadent, and meaty, but a little fishy tasting. The dates cut the richness of the ankimio well but there wasn't really enough to go around, which always annoys me. The fishy taste appears not entirely in a bad way but my friend described it as a little "dirty" tasting, and didn't finish his portion. We also shared a lovely platter of goose prosciutto (cured in house) with red watercress and asparagus. Really, it was set up as three stalks of asparagus, a few shavings of delicious prosciutto (didn't really taste the "goosey" part of it), and a simply dressed salad of red watercress leaves, with a nice basalmic reduction for more acid. This was a good way to start the meal, and the asparagus was a nice mix of both green and white, cooked to fork tenderness. I only wish they had been a bit more generous with the prosciutto. Our friend also ordered a ramp crostini (there may have been tuna in there, somewhere), which was really a big plate of greens on top of a large piece of toasted bread. He'd never had ramps before and wanted to see what all the fuss was about; I think he's a believer now.
For the primi: I think the pastas were solid all around at Esca. Everything was cooked al dente, as it should be. I had the maccheroni alla chittara with crab and uni. A nicely creamy sauce, and I could see chunks of sea urchin hiding among the noodles, under a pile of scallion strips. The crab meat was sweet and tender and complimented the uni well, but I overdosed on the taste after a while, and managed only about 2/3rds of the portion size due to the heavy nature of the creamy sauce. My friend took a chance on the spaghetti with a pound of lobster, chili, and mint. I think I might have liked a tiny bit more heat in the pasta but the lobster was tender, sweet, and perfect, and the mint blended in well with the red sauce. (My friend is not a huge mint fan but really enjoyed the combination of flavors this.) We also tried the bigoli: whole wheat spaghetti with sardines and nuts. I'm not a huge sardine fan but this was a nice change of pace and the whole wheat pasta was quite delicious, which I hadn't been expecting. My fiance had the linguine, which was one of my favorites. I loved the combination of the briny clams, white wine, parsley, bits of pancetta and a tiny bit of heat. Even though I couldn't finish my own pasta, I had to sneak a few forkfuls of his. Wonderful flavor, and the brininess only increased my enjoyment of the dish. Although other CHers had reported overly salted pasta at Esca, that wasn't my experience at all, with the four I tried.
For our secondi: I had a wonderfully tender grilled octopus with preserved lemon, a bed of greens, and white broad beans. Apparently the secret is marinating the octopus with cork! But, the waiter added, they use a pound of cork for a pound of octopus. Probably a bit too ambitious for regular old cooks, I think. The octopus itself was really wonderful, sweet, and tender, and on the lighter side, which is what I needed. My fiance really enjoyed his bluefish with an assortment of wonderful spring vegetables: asparagus, sugar snap peas, and fiddleheads. Delicious, fresh, and satisfying, and I loved the spring vegetables. We also ordered an assortment of five vegetables, Italian style: we chose spring onions, beets, carrots, mushrooms, and green beans. The mushrooms were earthy and meaty and probably my favorite of the five, but the green beans were also very good. One of our companions ordered the shad roe, which was a huge portion. It was prepared with some breading and pan-fried. I enjoyed the roe but it was too heavy and rich to eat after a while. Our other friend ordered a perfectly executed porgy for one, topped with salsa verde. Although this bony fish required a bit of effort to eat (he asked for it whole, not filleted) the efforts were greatly rewarded. Of course, he didn't even come close to finishing it, after all our other food. We skipped dessert as we were all very full.
Service was extremely friendly and affable, a bit on the jokey side, as our waiter cracked a few too many for my liking. They were very aware of the pre-theatre crunch and wanted to make sure we were not going to be late for any shows or appointments. The room was bright and homey, and I enjoyed the shelves lived with wine bottles. Our part of the final bill ended up at about $80pp including tax and tip, no wine, and tap water. But of course, we also ordered way too much food! The cost would probably be less for someone with a less ambitious stomach.
Although Esca is not "cheap eats," it does present an good dining experience for those who love seafood and Italian cooking, especially as a pre-theatre option. I although I enjoy the energy of places like Mermaid Inn, Aquagrill, and Lure more, this is a fine choice, if you can stand the price.