Last week, in connection with my due diligence for Our Ten Best Seafood Restaurants, I revisited Esca, after not having been there in three years. I’m happy to report that things are as good there, seafood-wise, as they ever were, causing me to list it as the fourth best seafood restaurant in town, behind the John Dory, Mary’s Fish Camp, and Pearl Oyster Bar. Some things were better than I remembered them, while others seemed to have slipped slightly. Nevertheless, Chef David Pasternack remains one of our greatest seafood chefs, reinterpreting Italian seafood traditions in Long Island terms.
The raw and the cooked: pickled sardine (left) and grilled sardine (right).
The signature dish of Esca has always been crudo. While crudo means local cured ham in most parts of Italy, in Venice it designates morsels of raw seafood, sometimes cured, sometimes pickled, sometimes raw. Pasternack took to dressing these swatches of raw fish with fruity olive oils and little tidbits of flavor, including chile peppers, citrus, herbs, and pickled vegetables.
Presented on an oblong pebbled glass plate on a bed of ice, the crudo offered on the visit was mackerel, pink snapper, and bonita, tasting oh so mellow in their yellowish and greenish puddles of oil. Just as impressive was an appetizer selected from the assortment of small fish and crustaceans that may be ordered in any combination. In the picture above, two treatments of the small sardines were ordered, one pickled and the other grilled, presented with arugula garnishes that made the plate look like a medieval coat of arms.
The octopus entree coils grilled tentacles atop a warm salad of chicory and white beans.
I found the grilled octopus entree a bit dull. When it first came out, it was a revelation, but now the recipe needs to be revamped with an extra flavor or two. Nonetheless, the cephalopod was perfectly cooked and the dish turned out as ably as ever. In addition, the whole fish at Esca continue to be fanstastic, judging from the local orata my companion and I wolfed down, striped from the grill and dabbed with a parsley-caper relish. Also known as porgy, this fish has been a local favorite since before Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess. Pasternack’s knowledge of local fish, and his concern for seafood sustainability, are further bonuses of dining at Esca.
Porgy, you is my fish!