Esca was almost completely empty when my party showed up at 6PM on Monday. I think we were one of two tables in action during the course of our meal. The entire staff seemed to be just standing around. I sincerely hope they got much busier later on, because the food was very, very good and I'd hate to see them fail.
The thing that makes Esca unique is the crudo, or raw seafood. We tried three fish: spanish mackerel, bonita, and fluke. Each had some variation in the garnishes but trust me, you won't care. All were treated essentially the same, which is olive oil, lemon, black pepper, and the occasional crystal of sea salt. The ingeniousness of this seaoning is that it really brings out the individual flavor of each fish. All three were delicious, but the fluke was a wee bit firmer than it should have been. Portions are about the same as three pieces of sashimi.
Next up is the pasta, of which the standout was shrimp ravioli in something called Nettle Butter. The butter, plus an herb I couldn't positively identify (fennel?) was wonderful. Whole wheat linguini with fresh anchovies and something else (sorry) was so-so. Spaghettini with crabmeat and sea urchin was good, but very rich (duh). Pasta portions were larger than expected, and I didn't want to fill up before the second course. . .
The whole fish baked in a salt crust was flavorful and delicious. Monkfish in "crazy water" was tasty, with a nice presentation. Both dishes were a little bit overcooked.
A word about the service. Everyone I encountered was friendly and extremely helpful, especially the bartender and some guy in a suit who might have been the wine steward. He helped me choose a delicious wine. The only thing I found mildly annoying is that they don't leave the bottle on the table, which makes it hard to gauge how much you have left.
The wine list has a large selection near $30-40, which helps keep the cost of the meal down, but the food itself is perhaps pricier than it should be. At ~$25 for pasta and ~$25 for second course, plus ~$12 for crudo, it's quite a commitment. I suppose if you don't pig out like we did. . .
Deserts were nothing special, but not too bad.
nettle butter is made with stinging nettles, the green whose sting is lost with heat. it's a rich 'green' flavor with maybe some of the high notes of fennel, but a strange adaptable creaminess which make it an ingenious butter-mate.
as for esca price, it's certainly reasonable given the quality of the seafood (not to mention its location, level of service, etc)...2 people can share 2 crudo, a pasta, and a main; 3 people can do a crudo assortment, split 2 pastas 3 ways, and get 2 mains ... the food is very shareable. excepting the always-great aquagrill (and underdog ithaka), you can't do better for a manhattan seafood-only meal...