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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Eating Out: Bargain seafood lunch at Esca, comfort food at Cuban cafe in Hackensack

A humble Porgy was the delicious centerpiece of my $29 three-course meal at Esca in Manhattan, among hundreds of restaurants offering bargain lunches and dinners during the NYC Restaurant Week promotion, which runs through Feb. 9.
The whole, wild-caught Porgy was slightly charred outside, but moist and juicy inside. Esca, which calls itself a southern Italian trattoria, served the fish ("Orata" in Italian) with extra-virgin olive oil and a green salsa.


NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Exiting the bus terminal on 9th Avenue, my hunger pangs increased as I got closer to Esca Restaurant, a little over two blocks away.

I took the bus into the city from Hackensack on Tuesday, my heart set on a bargain three-course lunch of seafood, extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs.

Esca, a southern Italian trattoria known for celebrating fish and other seafood, usually is the first fine-dining place I seek out during the semi-annual NYC Restaurant Week promotion.

Through Feb. 9, hundreds of restaurants, the vast majority of them in Manhattan, offer three-course lunches for $29 and three-course dinners for $42, plus tax, tip and beverages.

Lunch is the better deal, because many of the Restaurant Week dinner menus largely duplicate what is served for lunch.

With tax and a 20% tip, my lunch at Esca totaled $37.37 -- not much more than what the restaurant charges for a lunch entree when ordered a la carte.

Last year, I was able to cut that to around $32 by using a registered American Express card to pay for the meal, but Amex has ended that deal (I got a $5 statement credit).

Lattarini to start

I was by myself at Esca (the Italian word for "bait"), but the woman who greeted me at the door, and took my raincoat and umbrella, seated me at one of the small tables for 2 in the main dining room.

First, I got the chef's complimentary crostini -- with white beans and mackerel -- then a small bowl of tasty olives, then a crusty slice of Italian bread (followed by another of focaccia), and finally a small plate of fruity extra-virgin olive oil for dipping the bread.

Esca's Restaurant Week lunch menu offers four starters, three entrees and two desserts.

I started with Lattarini, a Crispy Rainbow Smelt with a Caper-Tarragon Aioli.

The small fish was butterflied, deboned, fried to a crisp and arranged on a plate with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs -- as if it had been hooked and was leaping out of the water.

Entree, dessert

I moved on to the Orata Americana, a whole wild-caught Porgy that was grilled and served with Salsa Verde, and finished with a refreshing Trio of Sorbets -- Tangerine, Grape and Pear.

That was a substitute for the Tangerine Curd Tart or Chocolate Trifle Cake listed on the menu, desserts that sounded as if they had a lot of sugar and calories. 

Esca's service is top notch: My water glass was filled repeatedly, and my table crumbed before dessert.

And the young woman who took my raincoat and umbrella when I arrived didn't need the claim check she gave me to retrieve them.

Here's to another great Restaurant Week lunch at Esca.

See: NYC Restaurant Week

Side dishes of soupy black beans and white rice at Casual Habana Cafe in Hackensack ($4 each), a combination that is sometimes called Moors and Christians, a reference to Spanish history.
Once a BYO, the popular Cuban restaurant now has a full bar, a liquor license and floor-to-ceiling windows on Main Street. But there are fewer seats for diners than before.

A favorite in Hackensack

We had a delicious dinner of Cuban comfort food at moderate prices on Saturday night at Casual Habana Cafe:

We shared a Baby Spinach Salad with Beets and Blue Cheese ($6), a fried whole Red Snapper with two side dishes ($19), and two more sides ($4 each).

The sides were tostones, twice-smashed and fried green plantains with a dipping sauce; tender yuca con mojo or yuca in a garlic sauce; and white rice and soupy black beans.

I poured some of the garlic sauce over the beautifully fried fish, which seemed to be swimming.

We drank pleasantly sweet Basil Lemonade ($3 each).

Website: Cuban Comfort Food

See a video report on our meal:

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