My husband and I went to Esca last week. Located in the theater district, on 43rd and 9th avenue, Esca is one of many classy NYC restaurants owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich (others include Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa , Casa Mono and Otto, to name a few)
The chef of Esca, David Pasternack, is a well known seafood fanatic and avid fisherman. And it's a good thing this guy knows his stuff, because the menu at Esca is 99% seafood. In fact, I think there is only one non-fish option. So if you're the type of person who goes to a seafood restaurant and orders the rack of lamb, don't bother coming to Esca. You come to here to eat fish, fish, fish and only fish.
The service and vibe of this restaurant is just a tad pretentious. They're very serious in here-- serious about their wine, intensely serious about their fish. The place, in general, seems to lack a sense of humor. We were a little uncomfortable at first, but half way into our 5 course tasting menu with wine pairing, all we were thinking about was how great the food was.
There was a deliciously fresh Crudo of Hamachi with olive tapenade, juicy seared scallops with a tangy and refreshing salad of arugula, grapefruit and blood orange and delicate Weakfish with a stew of tiny Beluga Lentils and lip smacking balsamic glazed Cippoline onions. Each dish was fantastic. But the real highlight was the pasta course: Spaghetti with Tuna Bolognese.
I don't know if David Pasternack has a signature dish, but if he does, it's gotta be this one. When you taste the Tuna Bolognese, you feel you are tasting a totally unique recipe that has been perfected and mastered. There is nothing I would change about this wonderfully warm, fragrant sauce laced with the heady flavors of fresh herbs, a trace of sweetness and a faint hint of cinnamon. It is creamy and delectable, each bite more satisfying then the next.
And what is so baffling is how MEATY the sauce is. Never in a million years would you suspect that this was not a classic meat Bolognese. Pasternack should be given an award, not just for creating such an awesome recipe, but for being such a talented magician. This man has figured out how to turn fish into meat. Surely this must be one of the great culinary achievements of all time!
When I got home, I immediately opened up my copy of the Esca cookbook to see if this mystical recipe was in there. It was. Along with this quote from Pasternack: "I love a classic Bolognese sauce. But in a creative moment, I figured...I might as well see what a Bolognese sauce would taste like made with tuna instead of meat. It succeeded so well that a lot of people can't tell the difference."
So true. And the recipe was pretty surprising. It turns out there actually was some meat in there--a hefty dose of pancetta. But that was cool with me...every magician has his secrets. What I really couldn't believe was that there was also Mackerel in the dish--what I consider to be the world's fishiest fish. The fact that this man had managed to transform Mackerel into a mellow meat sauce elevated him to Genius Chef status in my mind.
I called for an emergency dinner party the following night so I could try and reproduce Pasternack's culinary magic trick. It was a success, tasting almost exactly like the version we had at Esca. And I didn't tell anyone my secret until all of the plates were clean...
Click here to check out the fabulous recipe for Tuna Bolognese