Esca’s easy: Go for the linguine with clams. The $26 dish isn’t just great, it is as iconic as Peter Luger’s steak.
The clams are absurdly briny and that’s precisely the way it should be (waiters make this explicitly clear upon ordering). The salt hits your tongue first, followed by chili pepper the way lightning follows thunder. The pasta is firm, no overcooking here.
And there you have it. Esca, which David Pasternack opened with Mario Batali in 2000, is still one of New York’s better Southern Italian seafood spots.
Theatergoers know it as one of the few high-end restaurants around Times Square. Some Italophiles even prefer it to the vaunted Marea on Central Park South, for the simple reason that Pasternack’s food is lighter.
There are no park views, just yellow walls, white tablecloths, a 6-seat bar and excellent fish, provided that it’s cooked. Therein lies a very important caveat.
Pasternack is the chef who made a Manhattan hit out of crudi: Italian sashimi with olive oil and sea salt subbing for soy sauce.
These days, however, Esca’s crudi isn’t what it should be -- the portions are too big. Does anyone want a whole bowl of raw scallops or salmon roe? A chef’s selection of six small tastes ($30) addresses that problem, but it doesn’t solve the second one, which is temperature. The fish, already too cold, is often served on plates of ice.
That chill knocked the soft, fruity flavors out of coho salmon during one summer dinner. Later in October, king salmon crudi was mealy, with none of the luscious, unctuous oils that this fish is known for. And in January, bluefish with caper berries and sea bass with pine nuts tasted as if they’d come right out the refrigerator.
So order sea urchin, served just a few ticks below room temperature, a heavy dose of extra-virgin olive oil leavening the maritime musk. Or blood clams, which look like chum and are vaguely sweet and milder than many cherrystones or little necks.
Oysters are perfectly shucked and brilliantly dressed. Your wait captain leans over the bivalves, and, with truffle-worthy pomp, shaves raw horseradish over them. The flavor is vegetal, gently spicy, exhilarating.
Follow up with restorative Almafi seafood soup, whose good tomatoes and olive oil intensify the assertive kick of mackerel.
More daring is seared monkfish liver -- foie gras in a fishy tuxedo. Then there’s tuna bacon. The belly of a locally caught Bluefin, cured in salt, brown sugar and wild fennel, is seared on the skillet. The result is as meaty as pork yet silken as a mouthful of roe.
Pasternack’s overstuffed menu inevitably fields the occasional miss, like gritty razor clams and underseasoned sardines. Beware also-sandy baked clams and Peconic bay scallops.
If the salty linguine is not your thing, try the milder spaghetti with lobster, a perfectly cooked crustacean mingling with mint, tomatoes and chili.
Order that floral Gavi ($21) or Henriot Champagne ($25) long before the dish arrives, as on a recent visit a forgetful waiter left us drink-less for as long as a full course.
Still, such offenses are forgotten with the arrival of branzino for two ($72). The salt-baked fish melts in the mouth like pastry cream; fruity olive oil practically turns it into dessert.
Bluefish is atypically white and firm here, with a steak-like texture and a neutral flavor reminiscent of Dover Sole. And flaky whiting, the top burnt to a toasty, brown-butter crisp. It works.
Affogato? Sure. Not the usual gelato with espresso but a decadent brownie and toffee sundae with a little bit of coffee on top.
If Marea and Le Bernardin is where you go for special occasions, Esca, with some rough edges and fixable flaws, is where you go for dinner.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Easily $100 per person or more.
Sound Level: Never too loud. About 70-75 decibels.
Date Place: Make sure they like fish.
Special Feature: Excellent whole wheat focaccia.
Inside Tip: Esca gets quiet after 7:45 p.m.
Back on My Own Dime: Often, for the oysters and pasta.
Esca is at 402 West 43rd Street. Information: +1-212-564-7272 or http://www.esca-nyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Katya Kazakina on art.