alLUREing Staten Island

Back in January, when Miss New York Mallory Hagan was crowned Miss America 2013, one of the first things my parents and I realized with glee was that New York would have to host a homecoming celebration for her, and we would get to go. That realization came to fruition this past weekend, in Staten Island and Manhattan. Not only did we witness the homecoming of the first Miss New York to become Miss America since Vanessa Williams, more than 20 years ago, but we saw a selection of Broadway talent, and a special appearance by Ben Vereen! It was a really special event, and I’m so delighted that we were able to attend with our current Miss Thousand Islands, Lonna McCary. I also met four former Miss Americas, and hobnobbed with other state titleholders and former Miss New Yorks – it was a glitter-forward weekend, to be sure.

Moi, with Susan Powell (1981), Ericka Dunlap, (2004), Kirsten Haglund (2008), and Mallory Hagan (2013)

As per usual with Miss New York events, our base of operations was in Staten Island, this time at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is sporting a posh new rooftop bar and club called Above. Lonna and I ventured up there after dinner Friday night, met Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap, who is a total spitfire, completely undoing every misconception one might have about pageant girls, and danced with some of the other state titleholders. I even discussed hair and wardrobe with Mallory. Color me a fan girl.

Earlier in the evening, Lonna, my parents, and our pageant board members Stan and Deltra ventured over to the Dongan Hills neighborhood of SI, the same block at which we dined last spring at Carol’s Café, to try Max’s Es-Ca. I had noted it when we visited Carol’s, and looked it up later on my beloved Urbanspoon, deciding it warranted a second look. Turns out, I have good instincts, and Carol is in very good company, sharing a block with Max.

Our waitress, Victoria, was super fun and very attentive, welcoming us into the warm, mod, Tuscan interior. The Euro chic décor is sleek and comfortable at once, with a contemporary wall-mounted fireplace on the back wall, and to drive home the European feel even more, our table was set with a carafe of water and a plentiful basket of assorted homemade breads. To go along with the bread, a really delicious olive oil dipper besieged with slivers of garlic, roasted perfectly to coax out the most sweetness and savory flavor.

If you’ve already clicked on Es-Ca’s menu and glanced at the starters, you’ve probably guessed what I insisted on as an appetizer: the spicy tuna tartar. Honestly, I just wish a little tartar elf would come to my house three times a week and make this for me. No matter the configuration, I just love it. Es-Ca’s was less spicy than I anticipated, and very citrusy, with bright, clean flavor coming from the gorgeous, raw, brunoised tuna, tomatoes, and avocado. The housemade fried flour tortilla chips made excellent partners for the lovely disc of fish, and while this was less complex than versions I’ve enjoyed in Austin and Hilton Head, it was no less delicious.

The appetizer special last Friday night also put its citrus foot forward: crab and artichoke-stuffed portabella mushroom with lemon garlic sauce hit all the yummy notes: earthy, tart, and rich with tons, and I mean it, of fresh-picked crab. Usually crab-stuffed items are mostly breading with a little lump or flaked crabmeat, but this mushroom and Deltra's stuffed shrimp were packing plenty of shellfish goodness, in this case expertly balanced with the lemony artichokes and portabella.

Mom ordered the penne with vodka sauce and Caesar salad, loving both. I don’t groove on the Caesar, but she declared it the best one she’d ever had in a restaurant, extolling its balanced flavors and chopped up croutons that integrated so well with the lettuce, dressing, and shaved parmesan. I did taste her pasta, which again, was simpler than other restaurants’ versions, but expertly executed. The sauce was savory, light, creamy, and well-seasoned. The pasta was that perfect al dente that I can never seem to achieve at home – not so chewy that “to the tooth,” gets stuck in your teeth, but nowhere near the flabby, insipid mess you get if you cook it even a minute too long. Neither of these were particularly inventive or original, but both were the best versions they could possibly be.

Miss Lonna went for the mesclun salad, because the goat cheese was too good to resist. Topped with chicken, this mix of spring greens, walnuts, tomatoes, craisins, creamy balsamic, and yes, goat cheese, was fabulous. And Lonna was right, the cheese was the clutch ingredient, adding a ton of personality with its tangy, piquant creaminess. It was huge, too, a $10 entrée capable of providing two meals to someone having already sampled an appetizer. Again, the key word here was balance. The dressing was mellow, the perfect seasoning to bring the salad to life without overpowering any ingredients with vinegar. I would love that recipe.

Paella was the name of the game for me, and holy cow, was it good! The sheer amount of seafood in the this gargantuan dish of rice, chicken, chorizo, green olives, lobster, peas, clams, and shrimp made its price tag of $28 unbelievable. This amount of food – enough for at least three dinners – probably should have cost $32, even $42, in most urban restaurants. I don’t know how Max is doing it, but the quality and quantity of this dish were insane. And everything was insanely fresh, as well. I also liked the good balance of saffron and paprika in the rice, though I would have loved the crispy, charred bits that you get on the bottom when its cooked the traditional Spanish way. The chorizo in the dish was killer – fresh and spicy – it may have even been made in-house, which leads me to marvel, again at that bananas $28 price. And, to drive home how good the service is at Es-Ca, Victoria also brought me a bowl in which to throw my empty shells – classy!

Dad had a very unique fettuccine dish with filet mignon, shrimp, cherry peppers, corn, arugula and shrooms. The sauce on this was very light – just garlic and oil – and let the steak, shrimp, and vegetables assert their personalities, again, in that perfect balance we were coming to love. The filet was tender as can be, and those big, dynamite shrimp sang with the piquant fire of the peppers. Rich and luxurious in flavor, but not heavy, this dish was simply fabulous.

I will reiterate that the portion sizes were mammoth, but I’ll also admit that dessert seemed…obligatory. We just knew they would be delicious, and we couldn’t deny ourselves. And so the lemon sorbet, crème brulee, gelato, and fried ice cream were delivered by a still-cheerful Victoria to our gluttonous corner of the dining room. Dad’s lemon sorbet was served in a frozen lemon shell with a cookie spoon, and it was gorgeous. My ball of ice cream was covered in a thin sheet of banana cake,. The fried crispy and drizzled with caramel sauce – equaling a banana bready, sweet, deep dish that I savored. A home run.

There wasn’t a thing wrong with this meal. The atmosphere was warm, the service was spectacular but not formal, the portions were large, and the food was expertly crafted. The vote around the table was unanimous: 10 on the BHS scale. If you find yourself in Staten Island, maybe for this July’s Miss New York Pageant, a Hurricane Sandy fundraiser, or to see a show at the St. George Theater, make your way over to Dongan Hills and try Max’s Es-Ca. You will be well fed and well taken care of, just like these people:

Mom and Stan have their eyes closed; that seems about right.

Upon return to Max’s, I will be sampling the filet mignon bruschetta, because, yum, and also the tortellini carbonara. You guys know I’m a sucker for carbonara, and now that I’ve sampled the precision cuisine cranked out at Max’s, I don’t fear the same kind of alfredo trickery I’ve fallen victim to on many such pasta outings. Check back with me next Wednesday for a new review, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Es-Ca on Urbanspoon


  1. Everything looks great. I'm not a fan of paella, but that sounds wonderful!

    1. In all honesty, other than some mediocre fast food, we've had outstanding meals on SI. Who would have thought, in the forgotten borough?

  2. My mouth is watering! I'm a sucker for anything with goat cheese, and I love the presentation of that lemon sorbet!

    1. The spoon-shaped cookie was the kicker!

  3. That food looks fabulous! Now I'm hungry. ;-)