Esca: Nice Ice, Okay Food

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


402 W. 43rd St. (9th Ave.),


talk about ice. Ever think about ice? Maybe you don’t, and I don’t
blame you, but here it is: I like ice. I’m certainly not obsessed with
ice, but I care.

Which is not
to say that I like the cold. I really, really dislike the cold. I want every
single day to beckon with fiery yellow sunshine and an expanse of blue sky and
readings on the thermometer that hover right around 75, and I want there to
be no precip, and I want nothing to do with bracing winds, and I have no time
for pallid midday atmospheres, nor for a climate of sadness, and what about
clouds? Clouds, I suppose, are okay. White clouds. But nothing serious.

So, yes, the
heat. I go for the heat. Give me that sultry sodden Southern slow-you-to-a-shuffle
humidity. Or the sere purity of a dry desert. And this, I propose, is why I
pay so much attention to ice. I’m vaguely Southern, and contemporary Southerners,
and even Southerners going back a ways, are, like Inuits, a culture of the ice.
With the exception of beer and coffee, a Southerner, even a hillbilly detour
such as myself, will plop a handful of ice cubes into just about any beverage.
Iced tea. Lemonade. Coke (to this day, I think Coke tastes too strong minus
the cubes). Bourbon. White wine. Heck: milk. And of course the mint julep. The
mint julep: handfuls of crushed iced packed into a tall glass atop a tablespoon
of confectioner’s sugar and muddled mint, then flooded, gloriously, with
Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam. An authentic gettin’-wasted (slow now, slow,
it’s for sippin’) libation, entirely dependent on the existence of…ice.

I had dinner
at the bar at Esca, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s relatively new theater-district
restaurant the other night, and I’m here to tell you: They know from ice
over there at Esca. I’m old hat when it comes to bar dinners at Mario’s
establishments. I’ve eaten a whole mess of times at Babbo and Lupa. Mario
does bar-eating to a T. As I’ve written here before, his bartenders treat
you right, they treat you well, they treat you as if you were just as vital
to the joint’s success as the six-top out in the main room, those patrons
who are on their third bottle of Gaja.

Esca is oddly,
even jarringly, unfestive, for a Batali/Bastianich restaurant. The decor is
quite subdued, restrained. Tilting, in subtle ways, toward the Asian. The Japanese.
It felt to me like a cross between Nobu and a Charles Rennie Mackintosh tearoom–study
the light fixtures, you’ll see what I mean. Those lights, which bear some
tonal similarity to Babbo’s (that tone is nicotined), are kept,
to my eye, serenely low. This allows the restaurant’s main color, a copper-patina
green, to rise and retreat in its effects. It looks gray, green, blue, black–all
depending on when you catch it. These effects are magical, but also chilly.
The food at Esca is meant to reproduce the piscatorial delights of Southern
Italy, but the restaurant itself feels…well, submerged. It’s Mario’s
dojo, sunk beneath the Sicilian seas. Rusticity, so evident at Lupa and plentiful
enough at Babbo, is not glaringly, but noticeably, absent. There should be a
swimming pool in there someplace. Not a swimming hole, not an Italian
backwoods pond, but a pool. A fashionable, well-made pool, in which chilled
people paddle. And they should swim there only at night. I can’t honestly
see eating at Esca during the daytime.

an example: the olives. More precisely, the olive "dish." Scare quotes,
because it’s not really a dish. It’s an…orb. A clear glass orb,
filled with black, black olives. Here’s another example: the fish case.
It’s not a case. It’s more of a…cylinder, a partial clear-glass
cylinder, open in the back so the oyster-shucker (and here Esca borrows from
Blue Ribbon, where oysters are also shucked fresh at the bar) can reach in and
choose among the assorted raw bivalves. All the oysters, and the whole fish
(there were three, perched upright, when I dined), are labeled, with clear tabs
jammed into…

Yes. The ice.

So I’m
back to ice. And it gets better. Down the length of the bar, there is a channel,
and that channel, that trough, is packed with ice. A long, peaked pile of ice.
Upon this ice, I reckon, shucked raw oysters can be placed. It’s a great

But back to
that ice. And here’s where I’ve been heading with this whole thing,
because I have never seen such beautiful ice in my entire life. Man,
this ice! This ice was, to put it mildly, something special. The bartender,
a nice guy who treated me just fine, seemed unaware of how magnificent this
ice looked. Was it the low light? The overall esthetic of the restaurant, which
smoothly surrounded the ice? I don’t know, but it pained me to watch the
bartender manhandle this ice, treat it roughly, slosh it around in its frugal
channel with his casual bartender mitts. I felt for that ice. It captivated
me, enlivened my soul, smoothed my mood. So white that it was nearly luminous,
glowing from within, spectrally, mounded like a heap of captured stars, thousands
and thousands of them, culled from the heavens and clustered here, right in
front of me, in an Italian restaurant on the west side. Wow. Zen ice.

Anyhow, the
food. I chose poorly. Esca is a seafood restaurant, and, really, if you decide
to take my advice and scoot right on over there for a glimpse of the ice and
a plateful of food, you should order fish. There’s all kinds of it on the
menu. A meal can even be prefaced with what, by now, has become Esca’s
signature, a crudo lineup of what some have termed "Sicilian sushi"–a
selection of fish tidbits served raw. I didn’t have any of that, nor did
I opt for heftier fare. Credit it to the late-ish hour. All I wanted was a plate
of noodles and some red wine. The wine service at Esca is as compelling as at
any of Batali’s other enterprises; it’s by the quartino, or
quarter bottle. I went with a ’99 Ratti Dolcetto from Piedmont, which was
okay, if a bit tight. The pasta was a little disappointing–and given that
I’ve always adored the pasta at Lupa and Babbo, the disappointment was
a surprise. A $20 surprise. I mean, it was more or less accomplished–bigoli
(a whole-wheat spaghetti) in a light tomato sauce, with braised fennel and fresh
anchovies. The noodles, however, tasted to me like DeCecco, a jarring impression,
because at Lupa and Babbo the pasta has always struck me as practically being
made fresh, to order. Still, perfectly delicious, though the sauce was too loose.
I blame myself. Next time, fish.

I finished
up with a cheese plate. Also a strange experience, as when I order cheese, cheese
is what I want to taste. At Esca, however, my cheese arrived drizzled with honey.
Perhaps this is a Sicilian tradition that has heretofore eluded me. I went with
it, but I think that if I order the cheese plate again, I’ll ask them to
hold the honey. It’s a distraction.

But not as
much as that confounded ice. Again, I could barely take my eyes off it. It mesmerized.
I wanted to reach across the bar and scoop up huge handfuls, and, like a little
kid lost in winter’s first blizzard, wolf them down. But that’s what
great ice does to you. It takes over, with basic, elemental force.