Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Best Fishes

"They're like the French fries of the sea," said the potbellied guy with the suntan, stubbly beard and New Yawk accent. He was probably in his 50s, wearing a sports jacket and Dockers, and stood with two other men in nearly identical get-ups. They balanced tiny cocktail plates in their huge hands, rhubarb Bellinis sitting on the buffet table, sweating in the Manhattan humidity.

These Dockers-clad angels turned out to be David Pasternack's fishing buddies, hard-working Long Island natives there to toast their local boy at a party celebrating the fisherman-turned-Manhattan chef's first book, The Young Man and the Sea: Recipes and Crispy Fish Tales from Esca. I piled some of these so-called french fries onto my plate, figuring if these guys say they're good, they're probably right. The french fries they spoke of were actually fried sand eels, crisped up with fresh mint. They were sensational.

The party, not coincidentally, was at Esca, the Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich-run Southern Italian seafood mecca in Midtown where Pasternack has been the chef since its opening in 2000. (pictured:Iron Chef judge Jeffrey Steingarten, Pasternack and Batali at the party). I'd been to Esca only once before, to celebrate my 26th birthday with Fork. We were blown away by the crudo, sort of an Italian take on sashimi. Before I tasted crudo, my only experience with raw fish was with soy sauce and wasabi, or lime and cilantro, a la ceviche. But at Esca, the fish was accompanied by flavors comfortingly familiar to me. Extra virgin olive oil. Lemon. Basil. Rosemary. Garlic. Crunchy sea salt. The restaurant also impressed us with its whole roasted fish and pasta dishes, too. I remember a linguine with rock shrimp that was out of this world.

As my colleagues and I sauntered up to the buffet table yesterday, we were tantalized by the offerings. It all looked splendid. Of course, we weren't sure what everything was. That's where the Pasternack's buddies came in. Like the finest fishing guides, they steered me toward whole roasted striped bass, ivory salmon crudo, Nantucket bay scallops, and razor clam crudo, served in the shell and topped with diced red pepper and julienned mint leaves (pictured). I eyed a baked stuffed clam that was laced with prosciutto, having a flashback to the recipe my Aunt Ann makes every year for our Christmas Eve vigil.

One of the fishermen smiled as I happily scooped a clam onto my plate. "If Dave made it," he laughed, "it's going to be good."--S

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