May 8, 2000 | Insatiable Critic

Make a Fish

        After a winter in Venice eating endless octopods, frozen shrimp, squid in varying stages of submission, and overcooked fish, I don't really need to rush to Esca. But loving Lupa, their ode to a Roman trattoria, I can't wait to explore this latest outpost in the territorial sweep of the boys from Babbo. Loath to provoke domestic insurrection, I omit the "Southern Italian seafood" theme in discussing dinner plans with my sardined-out mate. "It's Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich again," I say. "Lupa, Babbo, Po." I toss in one of his favorite mantras: "Beef-cheek ravioli." And I hide the shiny little fishing lure -- pretty enough to be an earring -- that has arrived by mail with the menu. Esca, Italian for bait -- got that, Ahab? 

        How do they do it? With Molto Mario scarcely missing a sausage delivery after surgery for a cerebral aneurysm, Lupa barely in its adolescence, their new Italian-wine emporium just out of the cellophane, and now they're diving into yet another culture? Well, the Bastianich family's Frico on West 43rd Street was suffering from a fit of the vapors. So the two go-go entrepreneurs decided to strip off the frippery, slather on a bit of pale-yellow paint, and refocus. Still in discount previews that first evening, Esca is astonishingly mature. Bastianich calmly cracks one sea bream's salt crust after another, and the wine steward solemnly swirls an ounce of wine in each goblet, pouring the same rinse from one glass to another in a bit of showbiz that suits this edge of the theater district. Granted, one or two waiters are still green around the grills, but not enough to curdle our spirits. 

       True to Batali's seeming philosophy that no bruschetta should be easy to eat -- Babbo's chickpeas roll into your lap -- Esca's white-bean-and-mackerel mash on toast has me licking my fingers four or five times for just three bites. Yes, I know I have a napkin. Ah, so many tiny olives with lemon slivers. And the astonishing pleasure of poached baccalà in a salad with Yukon golds and wild mushrooms. I can't imagine that combo in Naples or Amalfi, but it's oh so delicious. 

        As my mate, the Road Food Warrior, wraps his fork with the last strands of smartly al dente bucatini and scoops the last bit of spicy tomato-smeared baby octopus, he marvels: "Do you realize this is better than any pasta we ate in Italy all winter?" Shocking irreverence. But it's true. What might be seen as too much sauce in Campania is perfect excess in my book. You might have a struggle to choose just one pasta. Shall it be the simplest cockles with pancetta and hot pepperoncini on linguine, or deliciously gummy gnocchi tossed with a stew of cuttlefish, capers, and olives? Scialatielli, the flat fresh pasta of Amalfi, studded with zucchini, barely jelled rock shrimp, and chili bits for a teasing afterburn? Or peppery spaghetti with a hint of mint nesting nuggets of juicy lobster? 

        Luckily, we've come with foodie friends, eager to trade and share. Miss Size Two worries that one portion of asparagus and burratta -- butter-filled buffalo mozzarella -- won't be enough. I feel the same way about tenderest medallions of monkfish all'acqua pazza (literally crazy water), but actually afloat in a sensational tomato sauce with zucchini and pearls of Sardinian couscous. After so many pastas and a round of superlative fritto misto (oyster, skate, rock shrimp, steamers, and scallop roe the day we tasted), a marvelous zuppa di pesce, a good-enough bistecca for the contrarians, and a tasting of the day's room-temperature vegetables from the "contorni" buffet, no one minds that desserts are, frankly, a pale anticlimax. 

        Given this team's batting average, I'm not surprised that even before the "official" opening, Esca is already fully committed. A telephone reservationist invites us to gamble on scoring a spot in the no-reservations bar on day ten. Forget it. Tuesday night's a traffic jam. Though once again, dinner is definitely worth the wait. A week later, with Broadway dark one Monday, a pal with pull gets us a supposedly nonexistent table at eight o'clock. After guiding us through the wine list, as impressive for its grape-nut-friendly prices as for its reach, Bastianich suggests a tasting of crudo, a daily-changing roster of raw critters. Giant diver scallop drunk on tangerine oil. Fluke lightly brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with radish slivers and sea beans. Silken raw langostine with droplets of oil from the Bastianich family's tiny olive grove. Porgy-like pagrus with caponata called caponatina for its bitsy dice. Yellowfin carpaccio with tiny olives. Rich albacore tuna with fennel pollen. It's as if Nobu got beached in Sorrento and found a new religion. 

        Yes, both Batali and Bastianich were pros even before they joined to do Babbo. But they make wading into deep waters -- impeccable sea creatures, reasonably priced; entrées $17 to $22 -- look like a cakewalk. "We do it with partners," Batali explains. In the kitchen here they have chef David Pasternack, a native of Long Island with many fisherman pals shuttling in the day's catch. "It's got to be really fresh to serve raw. It might be beautiful swordfish from off the Carolinas or flounder from Southport," says Pasternack. "Fishing is my passion. We'll get the best soft-shell crabs at the end of summer. I'll be out myself, jacking in a dory. You shine a flashlight and just scoop 'em up." 

        On our last tasting, even the desserts had perked up, with a fine pear crostata and fabulous baba au rhum oozing the nectar of roasted pineapple. I can't help wishing the partners would find a way to push the walls out into the courtyard next door. But as you can tell, Esca already has me hooked.

        Avra is quite another school of fish. it seems unduly harsh to judge the simple honesty of the Greek way with seafood after a sensuous night with Esca's saucy monkfish and voluptuous crudi (even if my char weren't slashed, the better to overcook it quickly). But Avra has abundant charms, even for a fussbudget like me. On a balmy day, with windows thrown open to the sidewalk, it makes me feel like I am walking into a country inn. Detouring through a kind of park, even if it is cement, past an ancient terra-cotta urn to a warm welcome heightens the sense of escape. A few embroidered pillows and hanging carpets make it not insistently Greek, but Greek as if imagined in California. Yes, I think it's definitely the freshness that's so appealing here. Light and soft fabric billowing between wooden beams above. Our waitress dancing all over the place trying to anticipate our pleasure. The vast space of two large rooms with the open kitchen in between. Long crusty breads standing up in baskets on a rustic table to soften the view. 

        Avra, like its parent Trata, like its inspiration Milos, beckons all those who admire the idea of fresh fish, ideally still wiggling a bit on its bank of ice, born to be brushed with oil and seared on the grill or in the oven. Just fish, at prices distinctly lower than Milos, too. Folks who would send back a raw tangerine-oil-slicked scallop to be cooked at Esca will be happy here. They'll love crisp fried calamari, maybe even calamari whole, deliciously stuffed with feta, tomato, and herbs; and the house pizza, Greek salad on grilled pita. And certainly, they'll overdose on the pan-fried zucchini and eggplant chips to drag through garlicky tzatziki. If the kind of people who want their fish well done don't exactly appreciate tarama, tzatziki, and skordalia (garlicky bread purée with almonds), the scattered tables of men speaking Greek definitely will. 

        I say discover the special elegance to the filo rolled around spinach, feta, and leeks on the $20 prix fixe lunch. As for the grilled octopus with curls of red onion and a drizzle of oil and red-wine vinegar -- it may be the best I've ever eaten. I tried it three times to be certain. A generous gathering of marinated calamari, shrimp, scallops, and cuttlefish encircling perfect baby greens would make a glorious summer lunch. Skewered cubes of swordfish ordered rare are rare enough for me. The fries are great. And I love thick Greek yogurt, rich as crème fraîche, drizzled with honey (maybe a little too much honey). But the crab cakes are dismal, soft and gritty with crumbs, I would guess. And is that a little too much Hamburger Helper in the burger? 

        Organic greens are soaked. Chilean sea bass has been baked to near-mush. But a friend who eats fish every night of her life raves over the loup de mer. I find it lean, flaky, and a bore. But if you asked me to meet you for lunch tomorrow at Avra, I wouldn't grump. I'd happily be transported to a kinder place, revisiting that supernal octopus. 

    Avra (141 East 48th Street, between Third and Lexington Aves.; 212-759-8550). Lunch, every day noon to 4 p.m. Dinner, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6.50 to $14.50; entrées, $17.50 to $28.50. A.E., D.C., M.C., V

Patina Restaurant Group