Esca: Nice Ice, Okay Food

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

Let's 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

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.

Here's 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 idea.

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.

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