Friday, January 22, 2016

At Esca in N.Y.C., go for the bargain lunch, pass on pricey flight of wine

An entree of Cape Cod Sea Scallops, Venetian Red Rice and Caramelized Endive was on the Restaurant Week lunch menu this week at Esca, a high-end Italian seafood restaurant in Manhattan.


On the bus ride into Manhattan for lunch at Esca, one of the city's top Italian seafood restaurants, I had my heart set on house-rolled dumplings in an unusual tuna bolognese sauce.

Esca is always my first choice during the semi-annual Restaurant Week promotion -- a three-course lunch for only $25, plus tax and tip, less than the price of an entree ordered a la carte.

It's only a couple of blocks from the bus station, but more importantly, I gave up eating meat and poultry years ago, and now enjoy seafood exclusively.

Esca, which serves an incredible variety of raw and cooked fish and other seafood, is co-owned by restaurateur Dave Pasternack, who is both a chef and an avid fisherman.

A walk-in

I got there a few minutes after noon on Thursday, and even though I was alone and hadn't reserved, I was shown to a corner table in one of the small dining rooms.

I had to ask for the special Restaurant Week menu, which will change daily, "inspired by the catch of the day," according to Esca's Web site.

And just when I thought my waiter was telling me too much about the preparation and ingredients of the Cavatelli with House-Made Tuna Bolognese, he mentioned one of the ingredients was pancetta -- a pork-belly bacon.

I passed, thinking it made no sense to put fatty, artery clogging pork in a heart-healthy dish of tuna, mackerel and other fish. 

To add robustness to the dish, anchovies would have made far more sense than pancetta.

Still, my bargain lunch was terrific: 

Complimentary olives, a warm crostini, and wonderfully crusty Italian bread, with fruity extra-virgin olive oil for dipping; spicy fish soup, a half-dozen sea scallops with extraordinary caramelized endive, and dessert to go. 

My starter was Zuppa Di Pesce Amalfitana, a fish soup in the style of Amalfi, with a spicy tomato-and-chili bruschetta.

Whining about wine

Since the 1990s, Restaurant Week lunches have always been about getting a terrific meal at some of the best restaurants in Manhattan for relatively little money, and not ordering extra-cost bottled water, soft drinks, iced tea, coffee or anything else that would upset the balance.

On Thursday, however, I decided to indulge myself by ordering a 2-ounce serving of Italian wine to go with each of my courses, a supplement of $17.

I loved the white from Friuli with my fish soup, the red from Tuscany with my scallops and the sweet dessert wine from Piedmont, but $17 for 6 ounces of wine isn't much of a deal.

I also objected to the use of large glasses without lines, unlike the ones you'll find in Montreal restaurants, asking my waiter how he knew he was pouring 2 ounces of wine.

And when it came time to add a gratuity, I departed from my past practice of not tipping on wine, because restaurants mark it up so much, and reluctantly left 15% on the food and wine total of $42.

Normally, I'd leave $5 or 20% on the $25 food bill.

If you enroll an American Express credit card and use it to pay for your $25 lunch, as I did, you'll receive a $5 statement credit for up to four such meals.

Car or bus?

Restaurant Week is ideal if you work in Manhattan or are visiting the city for business or pleasure. 

For residents of northern New Jersey like me, taking the bus into the city is the only real alternative to spending more than the price of a three-course lunch on the Hudson River toll and parking, not to mention fighting insane traffic.

A glass of Brandini Moscato D'Asti 2014 Piemonte, a sweet dessert wine, was served with my third course, Salted Caramel Semifreddo with Peanut Butter Ganache. After taking the photo, I asked for a take-out container and bag. 

A white wine from Friuli was served with my first course, a spicy fish soup.

I arrived without a reservation not long after the restaurant opened, and was shown to a table for two.

Before my fish soup and sea scallops, I enjoyed a complimentary warm crostini with beans and preserved mackerel, and olives, plus crusty bread and a small plate of extra-virgin olive oil for dipping.

Esca is at 402 West 43rd St., near Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan (212-564-7272). Service was excellent: My water glass was kept full, I was offered bread twice and luckily got the heel of a crusty Italian loaf, and my table was crumbed between courses.

The restaurant's Web site: Esca


The Winter Restaurant Week promotion at more than 350 places in Manhattan runs through Feb. 5, with three-course lunches for $25, a better deal than three-course dinners for $38.

Esca is offering a three-course lunch menu for $25 Mondays through Fridays until Aug. 14

See nyc.go Web site for other participating restaurants: 

$25 three-course lunch

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