Entries in David Pasternack (5)



These days, the usual career path of successful chefs is to open a second restaurant, and then a third; in fact, to keep going until the public says “Enough already!” And sometimes even past that. See the dictionary entry under “English, Todd”.

Not so, David Pasternack. Despite the accolades rained upon his Hell’s Kitchen Italian seafood restaurant Esca, the chef has been surprisingy slow-footed about growing his personal brand. Aside from the short-lived Bistro du Vent (2005–06), Pasternack has resisted expansion in New York. (I don’t know for sure, but you’d have to think there’ve been offers before now.)

Pasternack finally got the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse, partnering with LDV Hospitality (Scarpetta, American Cut) to open Barchetta (“little boat”) in the space that was last home to Alain Allegretti’s La Promenade des Anglais. This site has had trouble holding onto restaurants. Located in West Chelsea, close to Tenth Avenue, it is not convenient to mass transit. It needs to make a passionate case for our attention.

The immediate impression is that this is a cheaper and more casual version of Esca: an Esca without tablecloths. At the flagship, you won’t find an entrée for less than $30; here, they hover mostly in the $20s. Servings of crudo, the Italianesque sashimi that Pasternack introduced to New York, are similar to those served at Esca, but a couple of dollars less. You can order spaghetti with lobster at Esca for $30, or fettucine with lobster at Barchetta for $28.

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I read the occasional bad reviews of Esca from sources I trust, but never enough to persuade me that the restaurant had lost a step since my last visit, four years ago, when I gave it three stars.

The proffer hasn’t really changed: it’s an Italian seafood restaurant from the Batali–Bastianich empire, it remains insanely popular, and I haven’t been served a bad dish yet.

Many of the Batali–Bastianich restaurants take the attitude that you should tolerate the horrible service they mete out, and just consider yourself lucky that you’re fortunate enough to be in their orbit. It has happened often enough to persuade me that it’s not an accident.

I saw none of that at Esca, where the service was so pleasant and solicitous that you’d almost think Danny Meyer had taken it over. The staff even seated me before my girlfried had arrived—practically unheard of at a Batali restaurant.

Prices have risen only modestly in the four years since my last visit. It looks like every course is about two dollars more, bringing the cost of a four-course meal to around $90 before wine, tax, and tip—about comparable to most of the other New York Times three-star restaurants. But it’s also a menu that’s built for grazing, and you can have an extremely satisfying meal for a lot less than that.

The amuse bouche, chickpea crostini (above left), seems to be unchanged from my last visit. It’s the least satisfying part of the meal.

To start, my girlfriend had the Polipo, or grilled octopus ($17; above left). It’s an Esca specialty, and the kitchen nailed it. After all these years, it is still hard to find crudo better than Esca’s: Bonita, a fish from the tuna family, was served raw ($18; above right), spackled with crushed almonds and resting in a drizzle of olive oil.

The pasta section of the menu offers just six choices, and four of them are made with chilis or hot peppers, which rather limits the options of a diner who prefers to avoid hot food, as my girlfriend did. Fortunately, the Maccheroni alla Chittara ($25; above left) is a winner. The word chittara refers to a pasta-cutting machine that resembles a harp. Most references spell it “chitarra,” but the team at Esca prefer one ‘t’ and two ‘r’s. Here, it’s served in a subtle, exquisitely balanced sea urchin and crab meat sauce.

I ordered an old favorite, the Spaghetti Neri ($24; above right), a squid ink pasta with cuttlefish, green chilis and scallion, which is as good as it was last time. Esca ought to offer more pastas, as the kitchen has obviously mastered them.

The wine lists are strong at all of the Bastianich restaurants, but at Esca it’s not the epic-length tome as at some of its sister restaurants. Vinosia’s Fiama di Avelino (above left) seemed slightly over-priced at $51, but it paired well with the food.

The restaurant is split into several dining rooms, bustling but not overly loud. The space is functional, but it does not have much charm. The food remains the main attraction.

Esca (402 W. 43rd Street at Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***



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It’s hard to know when you can trust Frank Bruni. He seems to give a one-star premium just because a restaurant is Italian. And he seems to give a one-star premium wherever Mario Batali is involved. In just three years on the job, he has awarded nine stars to Mario Batali’s restaurants, a remarkable total.

So when Frank Bruni promoted Esca to three stars (his predecessor had awarded two), I had to wonder: was it really that good? Or was Frank just up to his usual mischief? Luckily, there was a parade of almost exclusively favorable comments on the eGullet boards, which persuaded me that I really must try Esca.

Bruschetta to start

It wasn’t easy. Esca fills up in a hurry. Several times I tried to reserve, only to find that 10:00 p.m. was the only time slot available. And no, I wasn’t that desperate to eat there. Last night, finally, I had an 8:00 p.m. slot. But even in late August, Esca was packed.

I agree with Frank Bruni about one more thing. The key to Esca’s success is that its chef and co-owner, David Pasternack, hasn’t over-extended himself. According to Bruni, whenever he’s called the restaurant for an interview, Pasternack is nearly always there. These days, when a restaurant is as successful as Esca, the chef starts to become an industry. Pasternack has dallied a little, but Esca remains his home.

Esca—the name means bait—introduced crudo, the Italian version of raw fish appetizers, to New York. Bruni, at least, credits Pasternack with the innovation. It was sufficiently obscure that William Grimes, in his 2000 review, had to explain what it meant. Nowadays, it’s all over town.

The menu’s crudo selections are followed by standard appetizers, pastas, and fish entrées. A solitary veal dish is the lone concession to the meat-lover. There’s no obligatory strip steak or roast chicken for the patron who was dragged along, but really doesn’t like seafood. If you can’t or won’t eat sea creatures, there’s probably no point in visiting Esca.

esca04.jpgAccording to the website, the menu changes every two weeks. The menu currently shown there is quite a bit different from the one we saw—and also noticeably less expensive. I don’t know if it’s a very old menu, or if the prices were jacked up after Bruni awarded the third star. Nowadays, I think a restaurant in Esca’s class ought to have a reasonably current menu on its website.

While we pondered our order, a sommelier came over to offer assistance. The wine list is of medium length, and nearly all Italian. There’s an ample number of good options below $60. I asked for a red wine under that figure that would go well with the entrées we were considering. He instantly offered a fine suggestion at $54.

After pouring the first taste, he took the bottle away and put it on a serving table out of sight. Only a few restaurants in New York do this, and I find it a bit annoying. I don’t need someone to pour my wine for me, and I don’t like having to look around to signal for another pour. My request to have the bottle put back under my control was granted without complaint.

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Orange Marlin (left); Verdura Mista (right)

I started with one of the crudo selections, Orange Marlin ($16). It was perfectly seasoned—just delightful. By the way, the restaurant offers a two-flight crudo tasting for $30 per person, and I’ve made a mental note to try one of these days. My girlfriend started with a salad of Verdura Mista ($16), and the kitchen did a superb job with this deceptively simple dish.

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Squid ink pasta with cuttlefish and garlic (left); Whole orata (right)

There are about a dozen pasta dishes, orderable as a main course or as a mid-course to split. We shared the Squid ink pasta with cuttlefish and garlic ($24). We were again impressed, as the contrasting flavors seemed to be so perfectly judged.

The menu offers several whole fish, in addition to a larger number of composed dishes. I ordered the Orata ($33), a kind of sea bream, served whole. The preparation was straightforward, but the flesh was tender, sweet, and just slightly lemony. It came off the bone without difficulty. My girlfriend was less impressed with Merluzzo ($34), a kind of cod. She found it a bit dull, and even had to ask for salt to make it more lively—and that is not something she often does.


At Esca, both the space and the service occupy that middle ground between casual and formal that Mario Batali has mastered at his flagship restaurant, Babbo. There are white tablecloths, and an alert service brigade stays on top of things, but you could show up in jeans, and not feel out-of-place.

On the whole, we left Esca quite impressed. Three courses apiece, plus a $54 bottle of wine still came to under $200 before tip, and in this town it’s difficult to get such a good a meal at that price.

Esca (402 W. 43rd Street at Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***


The Payoff: Esca

Today, as expected, Frank Bruni awarded three stars to Esca. It was one of Bruni’s best-written reviews, mercifully free of the irrelevant asides that sometimes divert him. He started praising the food in the 3rd paragraph, which must be a new record.

I thought that three stars was the only likely outcome this week. Thanks to the oddsmakers’ rather generous 3–1 odds, Eater and I both make an easy $3 on our hypothetical $1 bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $17.00   $24.67
Gain/Loss +$3.00   +$3.00
Total $20.00   $27.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 7–2   8–1

Rolling the Dice: Esca

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Esca, the Batali–Bastianich seafood palace on the edge of the Theater District. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 15-1
One Star: 6-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 3-1 √√
Four Stars:

The Skinny: We needn’t linger over this one, as Eater’s logic is so compelling. Esca already carries two stars from the Times, and Bruni’s re-reviews usually come with either an upgrade or a downgrade. Given Bruni’s love-affair with the Batali–Bastianich empire, an upgrade is the only sensible bet.

We also think there’s a kind of Newton’s Law at the three and four-star levels: every downgrade must come with an equal and opposite upgrade no more than a few weeks later. Bruni demoted The Four Seasons just a fortnight ago, leaving the gap that Esca will now fill.

Lastly, we think that Bruni itches to pull the trigger on a major review every once in a while, and we haven’t had a trifecta in over three months. The six-stars combined for Eleven Madison Park and the Bar Room, on January 10th, was Bruni’s last trip into such rarefied air.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Esca.