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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Dining and Travel

at 402 West 43rd Street ( at Ninth Avenue)

By Mervyn Rothstein

  Famous Octopus salad

David Pasternack, the master chef at Esca, has been thrilling diners with his creative seafood for seven years.

First, he wowed them with his crudo - sashimi Italian-style, raw fish with olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, sea salt and his imaginative minuscule garnishes. Then came the fish dishes themselves - more like poetic odes to the sea than anything else.

Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, wrote that Pasternack enjoys a preternatural rapport with the sea's creatures, an extrasensory insight.


A visit to Esca (it means bait in Italian), Pasternack's Southern Italian fish and seafood restaurant, at Ninth Avenue and 43rd Street, ensures a delightful evening, whether or not you go to the theater.

The greeting is warm and welcoming, the dining room - chocolate banquettes, ivory walls, generously spaced tables - soothing and inviting, the air filled with the bonhomie of people happy to be there, the service immaculate, knowledgeable, attentive and at the same time friendly.

The menu changes at least every two weeks, sometimes every night, and is dependent on the market. So talking about specific dishes can be only an example of what lies in store, rather than a specific recommendation. But the beginning is the same for all: an amuse bouche, a white bean and mackerel bruschetta, that is an indication of the glories to come.

The crudo the night I visited included Nantucket Bay scallops with chervil weakfish with pickled jjalapeno fluke with sea beans and watermelon radish house-cured salmon roe with lemon and Sardinian oil pumpkin swordfish with crushed almonds and wild Alaska king salmon with bronze fennel. Imaginative is certainly the word.

First courses ranged from seared monkfish liver with cranberry fig compote and wild watercress, to soft cheese from Puglia with spoonbill caviar, to grilled local squid with honey tangerine and shaved fennel, to grilled Key West white shrimp with a salad of fresh hearts of palm.

I recommend the grilled octopus with giant corona beans and preserved Sorrento lemon. I usually don't love octopus, but it's my wife, Ruth's, favorite, and it was like no octopus I had ever tried before: firm and succulent, no trace of rubber, and a gentle but distinctive taste of charcoal from the grill. The beans and the preserved lemon were perfect as accompaniments, as if they were born to be octopus companions.

The bread on the table is as good as you would expect in a top-tier restaurant - with one particulary interesting choice, the whole wheat foccacia, something you don't usually find.

Esca is a Southern Italian restaurant, so there's also plenty of pasta on the menu. To name a few choices, there's linguine with briny mahogany clams, hot red pepper and pancetta spot prawn ravioli with butternut squash and sage house-made squid ink spaghetti with cuttlefish, green chilis and scallion and house-made orecchette with mussels, clams, Berkshire pork sausage and broccoli rabe.

We thought we would try one without fish or seafood, so we went for the hand-cut Piemontese pappardelle with a ragu of wild duck, Barolo and chestnuts. It was a perfect late fall (or winter) dish, the pasta just the right side of al dente, the duck (marinated for four days and braised in the Barolo) rich and hearty, the chestnuts sweet and just a little crunchy.

And then came the main dish, the fish. There's roasted monkfish with Jerusalem artichoke, orange and grilled pine mushrooms Nova Scotia halibut with thumbelina carrots stewed with tangerine and prosecco Sicilian-style grilled swordfish with a confetti of cauliflower and many other selections.

My favorite was the local black bass with roasted Brussels sprouts and pancetta. The tiny Brussels sprouts were quite simply the best I've ever had - and I'm a true admirer of Brussels sprouts. T


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