The Raw and the Cooked: Deep Seafood at Esca

During lunch one Monday at Esca, a southern Italian seafood restaurant in the theater district, chef David Pasternack stopped by our table. “We have a wonderful Kenai River steelhead salmon from Alaska, which is only in season for one week a year. It has so little fat you can’t cook it, so I serve it raw.”

“It sounds great,” I said. Since I had just finished reading Kitchen Confidential –the best-selling paperback by Les Halles chef Anthony Bourdain, in which he claims you can’t get fresh fish in a New York restaurant on a Monday–I couldn’t resist asking him what he had to say about that.

Mr. Pasternack leapt back with a start. He covered his head with his hands and groaned. “Everyone’s asking me!” he said. “That’s one guy’s opinion. If you ask me, Tuesday or Wednesday are the worst days! I get my fish shipped from all over the world, and Monday’s one of the best days of the week.”

A native of Long Beach, N.Y., Mr. Pasternack is so passionate about seafood that he spends his days off fishing. (He and two friends had just caught 262 pounds of fluke, some of which was on the menu.) But if anyone wonders why Esca is packed for lunch and dinner every day of the week–Monday included–they have only to taste his “crudo,” which has become famous in the year since the restaurant opened.

It’s a work of art. The “tasting” consists of a trio of glistening, almost translucent fish on a gold-rimmed platter, served under a veneer of olive oil and a sprinkling of briny fleur de sel. Depending on the catch of the day, the fish might be black bass with toasted pine nuts, tuna with a dark-green olive oil and chives, weakfish with preserved lemon, or hamachi with tiny capers. The steelhead salmon Mr. Pasternack mentioned consists of three small copper fillets lightly coated with oil, salt and pink peppercorns. One tartare was made with razor clams seasoned with chilies, scallions and mint and scooped back into their elongated shells. The tasting of marinated fish is also extraordinary: sardines with pepperonata, anchovies with pickled baby leeks, and mackerel with baby fennel and wild fennel pollen from Italy that adds an aroma of anise.

The restaurant, in Manhattan Plaza (the red brick high-rise on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 43rd Street), is co-owned by Mr. Pasternack and Mario Batali, of Lupa and Babbo, with partners Joseph Bastianich and Simon Dean. The no-nonsense setting consists of two rooms done up in pale green and yellow, with stone floors, a row of booths and a small bar. There’s a desultory display of vegetable platters at the entrance of the first room, where picture windows give out onto a terrace. In the inner room, fish heads poke through a pile of crushed ice. Unlike the crudo presentation, neither of these displays could be called a work of art.

This spring, I spent several days in Naples, but nothing I ate, apart from the fritto misto, came close to the seafood at Esca (whose version of the fried-fish assortment is one of its weakest dishes). The menu opens with the crudo–there’s a selection of close to a dozen–followed by the altro (first course), primi (pasta), which can be shared by the table, and secondi (main course). Portions aren’t large, but the prices add up, with first courses averaging $12, and pasta and main dishes in the mid- to high 20’s. Wines are also expensive, though the list–which the helpful sommelier will guide you through–has interesting Italian wines from the South.

The best buffalo mozzarella comes from just outside Naples, so when I saw insalata Caprese (one of the few non-fish dishes on the menu) I ordered it, hoping for the delightfully creamy, sourish concoction I remember. But on this day, alas, the mozzarella does have a Monday feel: It’s dry. The grilled octopus (another great memory from Naples) makes up for it, however. Mr. Pasternack first simmers it with red wine and, of all things, wine corks–a technique he learned from an Neapolitan woman who briefly had a restaurant in Manhattan. He says he doesn’t know why, but when the octopus is cooked with the corks, it emerges particularly tender.

Most of the pasta is topped with seafood in unusual combinations: macaroni with crabmeat and sea urchin, whole-wheat spaghetti with anchovies and walnuts, ravioli stuffed with shrimp and sorrel with leek and nettle butter. Mr. Pasternack’s spaghetti with lobster is sensational. Chunks of the meat are cooked with garlic, chilis and tomatoes, served on pasta with mint. I’ve never had anything like it.

While other restaurants buy halibut filets, Mr. Pasternack takes the heads and sautés the cheeks, which are moister and have a denser texture. For a fish, that in Italian, goes under the poetic name “hippoglosso,” he creates a simple, summery dish with basil and yellow tomatoes in a light, mustardy sauce. He skewers giant, fresh Honduran shrimp, heads on, and cooks them on “the black steel” with corn, zucchini and oven-dried tomatoes. Wild sturgeon from Washington state, which has a rich, flavorful yellow flesh, is tender and juicy, seared with thin strips of pancetta and served with roasted beets and lamb’s lettuce.

For dessert, a plate of Italian cheeses with figs and cherries is nice. So is the rich chocolate-pudding cake with mocha sauce, or the black currant semifreddo with a rich goo of zabaglione and black currant underneath. Caramel gelato “drowned” in espresso, served with walnut crocante, and the chocolate-hazelnut parfait topped with espresso granita and caramelized bananas are just fine, too. You could almost be in Naples.

Getting a table at Esca, which accepts reservations a month in advance, is not easy. But there’s a better chance in summer, when the terrace is open. One morning, I called at the last minute and got lucky with a table at 8 p.m. “But it’s going to have to be outside,” said the woman on the phone.

I was delighted. When we got there, however, I understood the “but.” The terrace, which has a fountain with lions spewing water, is best viewed from inside the restaurant rather than experienced first-hand. The umbrella-covered tables are right under the air-conditioning units of the towering apartment block, making it about as peaceful as dining under the funnel of a ship. (Indeed, we felt distinctly cabin-class compared with inside, and service was erratic, too.) The food, however, was great–even on a Monday.

ESCA

* * *

402 West 43rd Street

564-7272

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Excellent, expensive, with many lesser-known Italian vintages

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses, lunch, $18 to $22; dinner, $24 to $27

Lunch: Monday to Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner: Monday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Tuesday to Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor