November 20, 2003
Tom Valenti is like Santa Claus for the Upper West Side—bringing culinary treats for all the good neighbors pushing their baby-bugees and strolling along Columbus Avenue totting lattes and H&H Bagels. I rarely leave my downtown abode and travel upstate to the burbs of Central Park, but for Ouest and ‘Cesca (where Valenti’s chef de cuisine Amanda Freitag is finally getting to strut her stuff), I’ll make the trip. Just a couple of notes before traveling: Go very hungry, and preferably after a long run or workout. You will want to eat everything on the menu, and if at all possible, you should, so it’s best to have the tummy nice and empty so it can be filled all the way up. And while a reservation is nice, the warm, chocolate-toned bar, decked out in dark wood with amber lighting, is a perfect place to sit awhile, drinks some wine, and nosh (read: pig out).
Whether at a table in the clubby rear dining room, or out front with the drinkers, start with the spicy Parmesan fritters ($6)—hot, puffy fried balls that are surprisingly light with a nutty tang and a luscious heat in the finish. Antipasti choices are egg-heavy, which for me is heaven. The speck with arugula, Parmigiano and poached egg is ‘Cesca’s version of the smoked sturgeon salad with poached egg at Ouest. The speck is robust and bold, the egg rich, runny and creamy, and the parmesan—in the form of a crisp fried cup for the egg—a flavor bridge between the two. It’s one of the best dishes on the menu, though striking in its simplicity. Of the non-egg choices, the roasted oysters with tomato zabaglione and crisp bits of proscuitto ($11) were deliriously good—warm, juicy oysters, coated in the sweet, tangy zabaglione cream, balanced out with a salty bite of the proscuitto. It hits every taste bud on target. Vegetable antipasti like a toothsome, nutty faro salad with fresh goat cheese and endive ($8), and the polenta with roasted mushrooms and fresh sheep’s cheese ($11) demonstrate that carnivores aren’t the only guests who can have fun with food here.
Pastas are made in house and astound. The oven-baked pasta with meat ragu ($18) is so good, but so rich that you may not be able to rise after dinner without a cable and a tow truck for assistance. Share this one. Main courses are also of the tow truck variety, but again are so good you just won’t care. The Fred Flintstone-sized braised pork shank is divine, the meat dissolving under the weight of your fork ($24), while lamb loin chops are equally tender, and juicy, served with wonderful spicy lamb kielbasa, and a rustic cauliflower stew accented with a bit of mint ($26). It was voted Best Dish at my table. (No hangin’ chads or recalls in that election.)
Since you are going to be towed out of there anyway, you might as well stay for dessert. The Tiramisu is good, but the lick-your-plate-clean house cheesecake made with tangy, creamy goat cheese is outstanding. It is one of the most delicious versions of cake made from cheese I have ever tasted. Fasten cable now, and get ready to be towed home.
'Cesca, 164 West 75th Street, b/w CPW and Columbus, 212-787-6300