Entries in Mario Batali (16)



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: ***


Del Posto

Del Posto isn’t a four-star restaurant. You already knew that, right? Sam Sifton of The Times is the only critic to have made that claim. Of the city’s  four-star restaurants, Del Posto has the fewest supporters.

Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton gave it just two stars, which errs in the opposite direction, but Sutton recognizes an an essential truth: a four-star restaurant needs to make you say wow! Not after every bite (which would be impossible), or even every dish, but at least sometimes.

There wasn’t much wow in our meal at Del Posto, which is not a complaint, just a reflection of where Del Posto stands, when soberly assessed. Almost every dish we tried, with exceptions I’ll note later on, was extremely well prepared. A careful, competent craftsman is at work here: chef Mark Ladner. Not many Italian kitchens in New York could produce a meal like this.

But a four-star restaurant needs to be a “category killer,” and the food at Del Posto is not. It is roughly on par with the better three-star Italian restaurants, like Marea and Babbo. Del Posto, of course, differs from them stylistically, but the gustatory pleasure it delivers is about the same.

What sets Del Posto aside are the atmosphere and service. Critics may sniff that the grand dining room feels like it belongs in Vegas, and even in Italy itself one probably wouldn’t encounter such a setting. No matter. For an elegant Italian meal, there’s nothing in the city more comfortable, or more relaxing, than Del Posto.

The service, too, does a passable imitation of high-end French models, with its armies of runners, sauces poured tableside, purse stools for the ladies, and so forth.

The wine list is superb, as it is at all of the Batali–Bastianich restaurants. The sommelier steered me away from the $115 Barolo I had chosen, to another bottle he considered a better choice, that cost $10 more. Decide for yourself if that counts as upselling, when you’re already on the hook for half a grand.

But he ably performed the whole decanting ritual far too seldom encountered in these days, and his recommendation was indeed very good.

Del Posto was always very expensive, and it has gone up considerably since Sifton gave it the fourth star. Almost immediately, the à la carte menu was dropped. A five-course prix fixe (now the least expensive option) jumped from $95 to $115, the tasting menu from $125 to $145.

Reservations, which were once plentiful, are now a bit tougher to come by. Four weeks in advance, I could do no better than 6:15 p.m. on a Friday evening. They don’t rush you, though: we were there for over three hours.

There was a trio of amuses bouches (above left). I don’t remember them individually, but they were very good. Bread service (above right) came with two spreads, the latter (on the right) made from lard (pig fat).

On the five-course menu, which we had, each diner chooses an antipasto, a secondo, and a dessert. Of the appetizers, I was more impressed with Lidia’s Lobster Salad (above left) with tomato and celery, which had a good, spicy zing. In comparison, an Abalone Salad (above right), with grilled asparagus and ramps, tasted flat.

I believe our first pasta was the Ricotta Pansotti (above left) with black truffles, probably the best dish of the evening. But that was offset by the evening’s only dud, a Lobster Risotto (above right), which was too soupy and over-salted.

Both entrées struck me as uncomplicated, although skillfully prepared. I thought that Sliced Duck Breast (above left) was sliced too thin, but my friend loved the dish. I had no complaints at all with Grilled Pork (above right), served with a hearty accompaniment of smoked whey, white asparagus, fava beans, and pickled cherries.

The desserts were superior. This being a birthday, the kitchen sent out cake, then wrapped it up for us to enjoy the next day.

I’m afraid we didn’t take note of which desserts we ordered (above), but we loved them. They were the strongest part of our meal at Del Posto. I believe the one on the right is the Butterscotch Semifreddo.

The evening ended in the usual blaze of petits fours (above left) and a wonderful chocolate sculpture (above right) that I felt quite guilty about not finishing.

No other Italian restaurant in New York can deliver an experience like Del Posto—assuming that its full-on embrace of unabashed luxury is your cup of tea. Many diners today find such meals oppressive. If it’s just the food you are interested in, you will eat about as well at Marea or Babbo, at Ai Fiori or Felidia, all of which offer à la carte menus that put you in much greater control over how much you want to order, and how much it will cost.

We werent’ really wowed by anything we tried. The best dishes were certainly excellent. Maybe I would give four stars if there were another one or two dishes as good as the pasta with truffles and the desserts; and if there were no duds like the lobster risotto; or flat-tasting dishes, like the abalone salad.

I’m glad that the owners, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, gave a four-star Italian restaurant their best shot. It is certainly much improved over our first visit, when I gave it 2½ stars. It doesn’t quite deserve four, but New York is better with Del Posto in it.

Del Posto (85 Tenth Avenue at 16th Street, Far West Chelsea)

Food: ***
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****
Overall: ***½



I had no desire at all to visit Eataly, the new Batali–Bastianich Italian food hall that offers the charm of a shopping mall with the crowds of an airline terminal the day before Thanksgiving. There are six or seven themed dining spaces, none of which take reservations, and where waits of 45 minutes or more are already legion.

There is also one real restaurant, Manzo (meaning “beef”), which takes reservations and offers something approximating a civilized experience. Reviews have been uniformly positive (e.g., a rare three stars from Adam Platt), so I decided to brave the crowds and try the place.

Manzo is expensive, and in line with those at the same team’s Babbo—the chef, Michael Toscano came from there. But Babbo, at least, is a nice-looking place. Manzo looks thrown together, with insufficient visual or aural separation from the rest of Eataly. Crude posters, advertising the owners’ new cooking school, adorn the walls.

It’s not that I mind eating in a supermarket. It’s that I mind paying $250 for dinner while doing so. For all that, the food at Manzo is extremely good—indeed, better than the last time I ate at Babbo. It ought to be easy to erect a real wall with a door (in lieu of the current makeshift screen), to set Manzo apart. Then, get rid of the crass posters, and they’d have themselves a great restaurant. Instead, what they have is an annoying one.

The staff wisely distributes the wine list first. I was already forewarned of the potential for rip-offs, and when I opened it up to Barolos in three figures, I figured I was about to get bent over the table. Dig a little deeper, and there are plenty of reasonable bottles below $65, or even below $50. The San Polo Brunello 2004 ($63) was an excellent foil to Manzo’s meat-centric menu.

Eataly has its own bakery, so it is no surprise that the bread was freshly baked, but the staff forgot to deliver the olive oil to go with it.

Appetizers were excellent: Crispy Sweetbreads ($15; above left); Top Round Carne Cruda ($17; above right), or the equivalent of steak tartare with a soft-boiled egg surrounded by rich, Piemontese beef.

We asked to share the Agnolotti del Plin ($23; above left), and the kitchen divided the order without prompting. It was a simple dish, but executed beautifully.

For a purportedly beef-centric restaurant, we longed for more choices among the secondi. There is a ribeye for two ($95), but we wanted to try different things. Tagliata ($35; above right) is a fairly lean cut of meat, and it needed more excitement than to be just simply roasted, as it was here.

The Veal Chop Smoked in Hay ($45; above right) is the dish several critics have raved about, and with good reason: it’s a huge, double-cut truncheon-sized specimen: juicy, smokey, and full of flavor. Braised greens with cannellini beans and pancetta ($10; above left) was also very good.

The dining room is not large, but a restaurant in this price range needed more than just two servers on duty. The host and two sommeliers filled in on their behalf, but still, it was sometimes difficult to get their attention.

Manzo is expensive, but not out of line for the quality of the food. The service will improve as the staff matures. What will not improve—at least, not anytime soon—is the terrible space. For $250, I want to enjoy dinner in peace, and I don’t want ads for Lidia Bastianich’s cooking school staring down at me. I might consider returning to Manzo—after they remodel.

Manzo (in Eataly, 200 Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, Flatiron District)

Food: **½
Service: *½
Ambiance: *
Overall: **



After dinner at Manzo the other night, we wandered around Eataly for a little while.

The crowds have been ridiculous. The space is the size of an airplane hangar; yet, it is not big enough. On Sunday, security closed Eataly to new customers, due to over-crowding. The line to get in at the 23rd Street entrance was wrapped around the block, onto Fifth Avenue.

Eataly is half supermarket, half restaurant. It is divided into half-a-dozen or more themed departments, where you can buy food of a particular kind (e.g., vegetables) or order food of that same kind. The layout is surprisingly slapdash, with poor wayfinding and cardboard signs that look like they were thrown together.

There are several sit-down restaurants, though only Manzo takes reservations. Seating is demarcated with crude stanchions, as would be used in an airport. Other parts of the enterprise have counters where you stand and eat, while both shoppers and servers try to dodge one another, hoping to avoid collisions that could range from the disastrous to the merely embarrassing.

Many of the prices are ridiculous, like Pat LaFreida chickens for $23, and white truffles for $3,300 a pound (that’s three thousand, three hundred). Squid ink pasta was the rare bargain, just six dollars for a dinner-sized portion that serves two—a terrific deal, bearing in mind that very few places in town even sell the stuff. But for the most part, the food sold at Eataly is at an outrageous premium to what you could easily obtain elsewhere.

Photos are available after the jump.

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Sam Sifton Awards Four Stars to Del Posto, but Can I Trust Him?

In tomorrow morning’s Times, Sam Sifton awards four stars to Del Posto, the Batali–Bastianich Italian fine dining temple in Southwest Chelsea.

The review accomplishes one thing: it sounds extraordinary—exactly what a four-star restaurant is supposed to be:

Mr. Ladner’s pastas are insanely good. After a wintry appetizer of warm, soft cotechino in a lentil vinaigrette, his spaghetti with Dungeness crab, sliced jalapeño and minced scallion arrives like the sun. It is a dish that speaks directly to Mr. Ladner’s genius, to a view of Italian cooking that allows for both jalapeño and Dungeness crab. His cooking is not about recreating Italy on a luxe scale so much as it is about recreating the Italian spirit on the grandest scale imaginable.

The problem is that four-star reviews gain value from the company they keep. There are six other four-star restaurants in New York: Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Masa, and Per Se. I know of no other critic—amateur or professional—who has suggested that Del Posto is on their level.

To the best of my recollection, each of the last three restaurants to receive four stars—Per Se, Masa, and Eleven Madison Park—had received a considerable amount of critical acclaim, blogger and food-board love, before Frank Bruni confirmed what all of us, basically, already knew. This review comes out of nowhere.

I am not saying it couldn’t be true, only that it lacks the usual indicia of truthyness.

Sifton has not had much opportunity to file high-end reviews. That’s not his fault: in the haze of the post-Lehman Brothers, post-Bear Stearns era, new restaurants of that caliber are a bit thin on the ground. Of the opportunities afforded him, he got it fairly close to right with Marea (three stars), but whiffed on Colicchio & Sons (vastly overrated at three) and SHO Shaun Hergatt (the opposite, with two).

Restaurants change. My 2½-star meal four years ago is, I admit, dated. But I am not yet ready to invest in another meal there on Sifton’s say-so. One thing this review will surely do, is whip up more attention for Del Posto. If a few more reviews confirm Sifton’s assessment, I’ll give it a try.



The pasta tasting menu at Babbo has been on my “to do” list for several years. I finally got around to it on Friday. (A copy of the menu is below; click for a larger image.)

Everything was very good, but the savory courses ended with a whimper. The last two — “Domingo’s Pyramids” (pyramid-shaped pasta pillows with braised beef), and Pappardelle Bolognese — were items any decent cook could make at home. Babbo prepared them perfectly, but the degree of difficulty seemed low.

Among the earlier courses, my favorite was a ravioli (called Casunzei) filled with layers of beets and goat cheese. I also loved a black tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta. The three dessert courses were fine, but again, two of the three were not especially complex.

The bread service was peculiar, in that it came with neither butter nor olive oil, nor indeed anything but the bread itself (served cold). The omission was clearly not an accident, as we noticed complaints about it at other tables.

I have no complaint with the price: $69 for eight courses (five pastas, three desserts) is an outrageously good deal. I even found a good wine for just $34, a level seldom seen these days in practically any restaurant, much less one of Babbo’s quality.

Babbo remains one of the city’s toughest reservations to get. The reservation line opens at 10:00 a.m. for one month out, and the line is usually busy for hours. By the time you get through, they’re usually sold out, or close to it. The best they could offer on a Friday evening was 5:45 p.m.

On past visits (here, here) I’ve dined at the bar (or the Enoteca, as they call it). Indeed, no one at Babbo seems to use the bar for its usual purpose—pre or post-dinner drinks. By the time I arrived at around 5:30, every stool was taken, and place settings laid for dinner. I was therefore dismayed that the staff would not seat me in the dining room until my girlfriend arrived, as there is literally nowhere to wait. By the time we left, the scrum around the host stand was nearly impassable. We felt sorry for the people who were actually trying to eat in that space.

Once we were finally seated, Babbo offered a much more refined experience. There are a lot of very good things on the menu, but on the whole I am not sure it’s worth the trouble.

Babbo (110 Waverly Place between MacDougal St. & Sixth Ave., Greenwich Village)

Food: **½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½

Babbo on Urbanspoon


Casa Mono

Owning the city’s most popular Italian restaurants wasn’t good enough for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. So five years ago, they branched out into Spanish cuisine. Sure enough, they mastered that too.

Pig’s Feet Croquetas with Cranberries ($15)Casa Mono was an instant hit, winning two stars from Marian Burros in the Times and a 25 food rating on Zagat, the highest of any Spanish restaurant in the city. It has taken me a while to get here because the place is always packed at the times I want to eat. Finally, I landed a Friday night 7:00 p.m. reservation.

Our dinner was almost scuppered when my girlfriend got stuck on a train. The hostess wouldn’t seat an incomplete party, and there is no waiting space inside this cramped restaurant: nada. She not-so-gently suggested that I mosey over to Bar Jamón, the wine bar next door, “and we’ll call when your party arrives.” But I’d already spent an hour at Bar Jamón and knew there was no space there either. So I shuffled my feet at the doorway, checking my watch.

Sepia a la Plancha with Salsa Verde ($15)My girlfriend arrived at 7:19 p.m., four minutes too late, according to the hostess. “I can offer you a table until 8:30 or seats at the bar without a time limit.” We took the bar seats, which may be the best way to experience Casa Mono. Watching the open kitchen just a few feet away is a pleasure in itself: it runs like clockwork in an insanely small space. You get to see a much wider variety of the gorgeous plates coming out, and the craftsmanship that goes into them.

Skirt Steak with Onion Mermelada ($16)There are some cuisines that, inexplicably, seem to be found only in casual settings (at least in New York), and Spanish is one of them. Alex Ureña tried to serve three-star food at Ureña, but it never caught on, and he had to dial it down a notch, renaming the place Pamplona. Batali and Bastianich, blessed with a keener sense of the culinary moment, made Casa Mono casual from the beginning, and never looked back.

Fried Cauliflower ($9)The wine list, though, is a serious document. If there were a four-star Spanish restaurant, it could have the same list without changing a thing. You’ll find large-format bottles with four-digit prices, but also real value below $50. There was a slight hiccup when I ordered a 2004 at $45, and the server returned with an ’05, apparently not realizing the difference. Fear not, said the hastily summoned sommelier: the 2005’s are just as good, and according to some connoisseurs, maybe better.

Confit Goat with Saffron Honey ($19)On the all-tapas menu, you’ll pay anywhere from $5–25 a plate, with most in the teens. A selection of six plates plus a shared dessert brought our food tab to $102. You could probably get by with a little less than that, but not by much.

Batali has never worried about challenging the diner. You’ll find pig’s feet, lamb’s tongue, rabbit loin, cock’s combs, bone marrow, sweetbreads, duck hearts, and tripe. But you’ll also find safe choices like mussels, skirt steak, and lamb. Pork Belly Fabada with Horseradish ($19)We saw a lot of skirt steak going onto the griddle, but not one order of tripe. Even Marian Burros declined to try it. A fried cheese made of calves head and feet has been dropped since Burros visited, showing that even offal has its limits.

I’m not going to comment on most of the dishes individually, but they were all terrific, except for over-cooked pork belly. The photos don’t do the food justice, but they were the best I could manage in a low-light setting where flash wasn’t appropriate.

Mono Sundae ($9)

Desserts are sometimes a throwaway at this kind of restaurant, but we adored the Mono Sundae, a plum brandy ice cream with arrope and almonds. We observed other diners in phases of rapture over their desserts, so this is apparently not the only great one.

The food at Casa Mono arguably deserves a better setting. It is cramped and rushed. Although we sat at the bar, even the tables seemed small and tightly packed.

I’m not the type to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle of wine, but even if I were, this isn’t the place where I’d choose to do it. But for five years diners have either forgiven the setting or perhaps even embraced it. Food this good can make up for many an inconvenience.

Casa Mono (52 Irving Place at E. 17th Street, Union Square/Gramercy)

Food: **½
Service: *½
Ambiance: *
Overall: **


Bar Jamón

Bar Jamón — literally “Ham Bar” — is the front end of the Batali–Bastianich Spanish double-header, the other being the restaurant next door, Casa Mono. The two share a wine list and prep space, and some guides describe them as one restaurant. Even the owners have trouble deciding: some of their literature lists the two places separately, but they share a common website.

Anyhow, it’s a tiny space that holds about 25 people, including those standing at the bar, where there are no stools. There are light tapas, generally in the $7–11 range, along with the crazily expensive Spanish hams that give the place its name. These set you back $15 or $30 a portion.

The star is the 24-page all-Spanish wine list, probably the best of its kind in New York. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone would plunk down $1,950 for a magnum of 1989 Vega Sicilia and then drink it on bar stools. But if you want it, Bar Jamón has got it. Even for more modest budgets, Bar Jamón has plenty to choose from, with bottles as low as $30.

Like all of the Mario Batali–Joe Bastianich restaurants, wine by the glass is served in a quartino or, in Spanish, a cuarto, which is good for about a glass and a half. In that context, the $12–25 price range is fair, and I was happy with both that I tried — the 2005 Mustiguillo ($15) and the 2006 Jiménez-Landi ($17).

As we had reservations at Casa Mono afterwards, I didn’t order any food, and the staff didn’t try to sell me any. The munchies here aren’t expensive, but unless you order some, you aren’t going to get anything extra—not even so much as a bowl of nuts. It appeared that about half the patrons ordered food, and half didn’t.

Bar Jamón serves as Casa Mono’s “waiting room,” though it’s too successful for its own good. By 6:00 p.m. on a snowy Friday evening, Bar Jamón was nearly full. I didn’t mind standing at the bar and admiring the bottles perched there. If you want a seat, expect to wait.

Bar Jamón (125 E. 17th Street east of Irving Place, Union Square/Gramercy)

Wine: ★★★
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