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Birthday dinner help--choosing between Esca, Scarpetta, and Gramercy (dining room)

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Hi NYers,

My husband and I are headed to NYC (from Boston) for my birthday next month and have narrowed it down to these three. I've gathered some assorted thoughts on these places from the boards, but I'm looking for a little more help with very recent feedback, and comparisons of the overall vibe/feel of each. I would say our previous two top meals in NYC were at Felidia (so I am up for trying another Bastianich place) and in the Tavern at GT (so I am interested in trying the dining room). Both were several years ago.

We value: a lot of vegetarian/pescetarian selections, effective but friendly servers, a room that does not look dated (I'm studying interior design and I am easily annoyed), and creative combinations of flavors, craft cocktails before the meal.

We dislike: Overly precious platings (i.e. two gnocchi over here, one kumquat there, truffle foam in between, all on a hexagonal plate for 40 dollars), servers who are snooty (looking at you, guy at Mesa Grill--you do realize you are standing in front of a giant cowboy mural, lay off the 'tude), and restaurants that insist on having bacon or pancetta in everything (I hate asking for something to be left off).

We are comfortable spending ~350 for our meal, but will be very annoyed if we feel afterwards that we could have had a better time somewhere else for half that much.

Thanks for your help!

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  1. While I love the tavern part of GT, I've been disappointed with the dining room part of GT, and do not really associate the two.

    I think Scarpetta is more consistent that Esca, but if you really like seafood Esca is more likely to be able to blow you away. The spaghetti at Scarpetta is wonderful, but so is the gnocchi at Esca.

    In terms of decor, Scarpetta is much more modern with a nice bar. Esca is much more rustic, tiny, and can be a little cramped.

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    Gramercy Tavern
    42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003

    Esca
    402 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036

    Scarpetta
    355 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10014

    2 Replies
    1. re: fooder

      Thanks! I appreciate the help. It does seem to be a recurring theme that people enjoy the tavern more than the main dining room at GT. This has made me really hesitant! Nothing worse than a Michelin-starred disappointment in my book. :(

      1. re: ginafly

        Well, then, you can add me as one of those who iikes the food in the Tavern Room but has sworn off ever eating in GT's dining room again. As I've said before on this board, I've never had a meal in the dining room that even came close to wowing me, and when it served me my worst meal of 2009, that was it!

        I'm not an Esca fan either. The one meal we had there more than ten years ago left me not wanting to go back. The food was unexciting, service was brusque, and seating was unbearably tight. I have occasionally thought about changing my mind, but then I think about that first experience, and I can't get myself to do it.

        We haven't been to Scarpetta in quite some time, but I like the food there a lot, I think the signature Mushrooms with Polenta and the Spaghetti, Tomato & Basil are reasons enough to go. The bread basket is one of the best around, the halibut (if it's still on the menu) was excellent, and desserts are wonderful. Service is friendly and attentive, and the space has pleasant modern decor and comfortable seating.

        Scarpetta photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...

        and here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...

        http://thewizardofroz.wordpress.com

        -----
        Gramercy Tavern
        42 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003

        Esca
        402 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036

        Scarpetta
        355 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10014

    2. All are doable on your budget. Personally, of the three, I probably like Esca the best.

      I like both the Tavern and Main Dining Room at GT - they're both good for what they are. The MDR might not be quite where it was in Colicchio's day - but I've had some solid meals since Michael Anthony took over. It's been a little while since I've been, though.

      Of the three, GT has the best cocktails easily. Esca is the place to go for fish, obviously. Scarpetta, OTOH, has a full vegetarian menu in addition to their regular one - and not the kind where they just sub pastas for main courses, but real, well-though-out vegetarian entrees.

      Keep in mind that as far as plating goes, both Esca and Scarpetta (like most of our high-end Italian restaurants) while not "precious" in their plating, do size portions with a "proper Italian meal" of four courses in mind - antipasti, pasta, secondi, dolci. So just getting a typical "American three" - app / entree / dessert - could leave some eaters wanting, just a bit. On the other hand, some people feel overstuffed after the full four - YMMV. Esca offers a prix fixe where you pick one of each category, while Scarpetta's all a la carte IIRC.

      None of them are places where, if asked for "creative combinations of flavors" would pop into my mind, though. None of them are, like, WD-50 or anything. I'd only mention them on account of a.) as far as creative flavor combinations go, they're the go-to spot, and b.) they have arguably the best cocktail program of any restaurant in NYC. Still, given your worries about kumquats here and truffle foam there, it might not be a place you'd be primed to give a chance to. They're not precious (though perhaps they were a bit in their early days, and took those criticisms to heart thankfully) - but they are a bit playfully weird, which can look pretty similar on the plate.

      Anyway, for you guys - of the above, probably Esca is the way to go

      1. The narrowing down to these three are interesting. I'm not sure why EMP, Per Se, Modern, Brushstroke, kajitsu, Kyo ya, Toqueville, jean Georges were ruled out. However, If you loved Felidia, then I would do Scarpetta, I think Esca will disappoint. GT i don't think is worthy of anything but a drink.

        2 Replies
        1. re: foodwhisperer

          I could think of many reasons why... the first, most obvious one, would be price. Just because you can afford Per Se doesn't mean the OP (or most people) can.

          Really, all of the above (except Kajitsu, and maybe Toqueville) are more expensive than the narrowed list. And Per Se - you could have dinner at all three for the price of one meal at Per Se.

          Second, maybe those restaurants have the kind of food the OP wants. Or third, the vibe they're looking for - they may not want a jacket-required ultra-chichi setting. Maybe they don't like Japanese food, thus Kyo Ya and Kajitsu are out. Who knows?

          1. re: foodwhisperer

            The only one on your list that I actually ruled out was Per Se. I simply don't have the desire to spend that much money on a meal. I've had enough amazing ones at half or a third of that price point to know that I can find my happy there. In the decade or so we've been eating at good restaurants, my husband and I have found that for us, the most expensive is not always the most enjoyable. I would spend the meal thinking of all of the other things I could buy or do with the money. It is simply a personal preference/priorities issue. I think if we ever do decide to blow 800 bucks on a meal, it would likely be at Alinea in Chicago, or in Paris. And it would likely be for something more exciting than just turning 33. =)

            We also tend to not seek out Asian food for our 'fancier' meals. I think this is because we know less about the cuisine, and cook it less, so we tend to have less desire to spend a lot of money on it. For me, a birthday meal simply must include a cheese plate, also. I do love higher end sushi once in while, but tend to avoid it more and more for environmental reasons.

            Still, I will look into some on your list, and I thank you for the list! Not living in a city puts one out of touch with the scene at large.

            Oh, I definitely looked closely at The Modern, actually, and decided I would rather try it for lunch sometime, since it is right in the museum and lunch is less of a high stakes gamble and would fit nicely into a museum visit.

          2. I would skip Esca.

            For "creative combinations of flavors" consider Momofuku Ko....but for ~350 including tax, tip, and drink, you can only afford a half bottle of wine

            1. Scarpetta is great, but if you're put off by minimal presentation, it might not be ideal for you. It's not New American style with a dollop of foam, but they will perfectly arrange rows of pasta and then make zig zags with a squirt bottle of sauce. They're also prone to sticking some polarizing ingredients in several dishes, so if you happen to regard foi gras or marrow are in the same category as bacon, consider yourself warned. I think the rest will suit you well, and you can find some cocktail options nearby for an after dinner drink.

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              Scarpetta
              355 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10014