esca photo by michelle volansky

First Look: Esca in the Delmar Maker District in St. Louis

Esca, the new “coastal Mediterranean bar and grill” from Ben Poremba’s Bengelina Hospitality Group, will open on Thursday, March 21, at 5095 Delmar Blvd. in the Delmar Maker District. The restaurant’s menu features meat, seafood and vegetables grilled over charcoal, fresh salads and cold appetizers, classic cocktails, a large amaro selection and a range of indulgent desserts.

Poremba said Esca “doesn’t have a defined cuisine,” but rather is inspired by a variety of Mediterranean cuisines, taking in the Western Mediterranean, the French Riviera and “a little bit of Sicily.” The first floor space at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Academy Avenue was formerly a barber shop, transformed by two years of top-to-bottom renovations into a dining room that instantly ranks among the most appealing in the city. The blush pink sofas, rugs on wooden floorboards and other wood furnishings give the space a cozy, homey feel, while the light fixtures and exposed brick add a more urban nuance. It’s a restaurant design for people who love restaurants, from the central server station to the most open of open kitchens. Floor-to-ceiling windows bathe the room in glorious natural light, while a patio on the side of the building offers additional seating.

For a first visit to the restaurant, Poremba recommended ordering the mortadella, which is sourced from Italy. “We’ve worked hard to find the right kind of mortadella that’s just a fun, easy way of getting the meal started,” he said. Or you might go for the brandade – house salt cod with potato and garlic, served with charred bread. On the salad and appetizer menu, Poremba pointed to the vitello tonnato (shaved veal with tuna sauce, capers and croutons) or the veal tartare. “These are classical dishes from Piedmont [in northern Italy],” he said.

Poremba has said Esca’s approach to eating well mirrors the way he cooks for friends at home, with much of the meat, seafood and vegetables grilled over charcoal. The entrees include Amish chicken with herbes de Provence and a chicken jus containing more than a hint of white pepper, prime cuts of beef served with beurre rouge, bone marrow bearnaise or chimichurri, and a whole grilled fish, with the specific selection varying depending on what’s on the market.

Esca’s dessert menu, which includes a traditional tiramisu and a limoncello alternative, among other luscious-looking items, has been a particular focus of Poremba’s attention in the buildup to the launch. “All I’ve been cooking the last three months is dessert,” he said. “Don’t skimp on dessert.”

This restaurant is the work not just of Poremba himself, but also trusted lieutenants like Bengelina’s wine and service director, Luciano Racca. The drink list here includes a “library-sized” selection of amari, which can be served neat or in classic 1-2-3 spritzes. Bar manager Noah Davidson makes elevated takes on classic cocktails that rely on top-shelf spirits, including a deceptively easy-drinking limoncello sour, a selection of martinis and the Brooklyner (Nikka Coffey grain whiskey, Mancino Secco, Cynar and yellow Chartreuse).

Two drinks in particular stand out. The clay pot negroni is Esca’s take on the signature cocktail created by renowned bartender Giancarlo Mancino, also founder of the Mancino vermouth brand. The drink is aged in one of Mancino’s proprietary clay pots, a process that mellows out the Campari’s bitterness and any heat from the alcohol, leaving a perfectly smooth, nuanced and complex drink. “It’s one of the exclusive things that we have at the bar, and I’m very proud of it,” Poremba said.

Perhaps best of all is the Vieux Carré. Poremba said Doug Auer, co-owner of Third Degree Glass Factory and one of the driving forces behind the Delmar Maker District’s revitalization of Delmar Boulevard west of Kingshighway Boulevard, challenged him to create a truly outstanding version of the classic New Orleans cocktail. Esca’s version is unconventional, but the result is memorable. “We’re not stirring it, we’re shaking it. We’re using super high-end cognac, we’re using true Benedictine, and we’re serving it in a frozen glass so that way it stays cold,” Poremba said. “It’s not only a perfect Vieux Carré, but a perfect drink.”

The restaurant will be in soft opening from Thursday, March 21, to Saturday, March 23, with reservations for those dates already fully booked, but Poremba said there will be space set aside for walk-in guests. Poremba said around 70 percent of the full menu will be available during soft opening, with the full menu expected to be available by Tuesday, March 26.

Esca is the first of several restaurants that Poremba will open throughout 2024 in the Delmar Maker District: Still to come are Florentin and the three restaurants he is relocating from their former homes in Botanical Heights, Olio, Elaia and Nixta. With other restaurants recently opened or soon to open, from Beyond Sweet to Steve’s Hot Dogs, The Fountain on Delmar and Alpha Brewing Co., Poremba is bullish on the future of a stretch of Delmar that has been neglected and overlooked for too long. “I’m very proud to be part of this,” he said. “I intentionally wanted to open with a restaurant that could go anywhere. I intentionally wanted to do something nice and beautiful and quality. … Breaking this barrier is important.”

Esca will open for dinner on Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. until close, with last reservations at 9 p.m. Reservations are available via Resy.