November 22, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Lincoln as Muse and Amuse

Chef Benno wemt from Per Se’s 70 seats to 120 seats and open kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter.
Chef Benno wemt from Per Se’s 70 seats to 120 seats and open kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Not in years, possibly not since Windows-on-the-World, has a restaurant arrived with such high expectations as Lincoln. I won’t say it was equal to the Emancipation Proclamation, but after Glenn Collins’ extensive diary of its birthing triumphs and traumas in the Times, Lincoln, once it had a name, was clearly to elitist mouths as big a deal as Das Rheingold or Pacino’s Shylock on Broadway or MOMA’s backward glance at the great Abstract Expressionist moment are to our town’s kultur mavens.

The dramatic sweep of wood ceiling casts a rosy glow. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Perched beside the reflecting pool on the new people’s campus, it recognizes that food is our culture too. Here it is with its nicely eccentric green grass buzz cut, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Lawn on its slanting roof, surely the plum pudding of Lincoln Center’s gutsy makeover that brought open paths and accessibility to feudal walled-off monuments of the 70s.

The kitchen sends a sumptuous gift of seductive white truffle. Photo: Steven Richter.

        This is Nick Valenti’s Four Seasons: The architectural ambition. With Lincoln Center as Patina Group’s Seagram family, no expense spared. The theater of formal service ritual. The extravagance of tabletop reminiscent of Joe Baum, who conjured Restaurant Associates feederies in the 60s as if he had a key to the mint. It’s not just impressive. It’s $20 million on the plate.

The brave new kitchen is in full view. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I rather like it. It’s sexy sitting at the bar with its partial view of the kitchen, just Steven and me, come for pasta and dessert before curtain’s up at “A Free Man of Color,” a few steps away. At first the bartender is distracted making cocktails – the man on my left is sipping a martini and reading “Greater Good,” he’s pre-theater too I am sure. But then a napkin arrives, flatware, the house’s elaborate crisps and delicious twiggy breadsticks in custom-designed stainless steel artifacts and amusing enough amuses: arancini, olives and delicious little chickpea logs in eggplant puree.

Flavorful cavatelli with razor clam, not enough for a growing boy. Photo: Steven Richter.

        We’re tasting and trading pastas, a scant cup or so of cavatelli con vongole with a few pepper strands for color, definitely more flavorful than last time we tasted. But is it possible just one razor clam washed up on shore today? The green lasagna is petite too, green pasta leaves thin, I’d say anorexic, although the less than inch high round with its veal, beef and pork ragu and bechamel is quite good. Bresaola of wagyu, painted with olive oil, aristocratic boutique without doubt, and set on chopped celery and apple, is a gift of the chef from his $120 tasting menu. Alas, I cannot detect alleged horseradish.

The $38 brodetto is elegant but meager. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I ask for the check and espresso. However torta di ricotta arrives unbidden, with triangles of pumpkin bread and toasted walnut gelato. It’s wonderful, as is Pastry Chef Richard Capizzi’s irresistible cookie plate. It’s been a long time since I dared coffee after dinner, but I hear the play is long and I want to do John Guare justice. It’s a textbook perfect espresso in a covered cup, hot, very Italian.

A zesty strozzapreti with pesto was an early favorite. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I could mount a good defense for what Valenti and the brilliant architectural team at Diller Scofidio + Renfro have done. Lincoln glows. From the street, as you watch the chef ballet through glass walls, it fires excitement. From a table overlooking the street, I love those glass walls, the industrial hinges that hold panels together, am mesmerized by the flash of images on the LED screen below.

Spanish sea bass is paved with radish and studded with olive. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Now we’re back for our fourth dinner. The tentativeness of the first “friends and family” has given way to staff confidence, though there might be a longish wait for plates to be cleared. Maybe there’s a little too much Per Se-like speechifying and explanation from the serving militia, women and men in dark business suits, the waiters in grey flannel vests. And 20 drops of patrician olive oil in a doll-house saucer disappears quickly.

Savory "rarish” veal chop with gnocchi alla romana is a triumph. Photo: Steven Richter.

        The burrata with roasted squash and walnuts is exceptional, though I’m stunned to learn that some of the buffalo milk is shipped to the cheesemaker in California from Italy before the burrata is delivered here. One part of me revels in the wanton excess. I try not to be too puritanical about the shadow of global footprints. Sea bass tartare paved with radish thins is Spanish, after all, and it’s merely a bit boring.

Roasted beef from the chef’s tasting menu is meaty and satisfying. Photo: Steven Richter.

        There are dishes I like here. The lush $42 veal chop, its bone propped on a gnocco alla Romana. Strozzapreti pasta alla Genovese with batons of zucchini. A fine giant scallop with sunchoke and almonds…though just one scallop for $24 is what makes Lincoln seem aggressively expensive. Ethereal potato gnocchi in butter with parmesan, one of the $14 sides. Tonight, two fat slices of prime roast sirloin ($40 from the $120 tasting menu) are meaty and satisfying.

Buttery lobster gets a chic coral-tinted raviolo coverlet. Photo: Steven Richter.

        From the same tasting menu there is carefully cooked and buttery lobster under Benno’s creative raviolo: a sheet of coral tinted, herb imprinted pasta, chic, sophisticated…but somehow missing a pow to seduce my taste buds. I wish I could taste the sea urchin in the rigati with crab and slivers of sea beans. Bland cod in greasy prosciutto broth seems a mistake to me and there is not much oomph in a scant seafood brodetto at $38.

Crack the chocolate dome on Monte Bianco for a luscious finale. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At just the right moment, I find comfort in pastry chef Richard Capizzi’s apple crostata with mascarpone gelato, his marvelous Monte Bianco of chocolate-cloaked buttermilk gelato and chestnut sorbetto with chocolate tortino and grappa whipped cream. Now that’s a thrill! I linger too for his buttery cookie farewell.

         Perhaps Benno’s cerebral modern vision of Italian food will find its audience. To me, right now it seems too sedate. I’ve known and admired Nick Valenti for 30 years. He’s an advertiser, a member of the Citymeals-On-Wheels board and has hosted our million dollar fundraiser in the Rockefeller Center Garden as a gift for 26 years. I don’t think I’m being overly kind to note that it’s too early for a final judgment on so ambitious a dream.

        142 West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023 (212) 359-6500.


Mia Dona’s Meatball Madness

Checking out Mia Dona’s lipstick red Meatball Wagon on a chilly fall day. Photo: Gael Greene.

        My friend Naomi and I have been making a valiant effort to recapture the carefree days when work did not consume 80 or 90 hours a week. So far we have succeeded in sneaking away from real or imagined obligations every three weeks for an extended deeply intimate, partly gossipy, therapeutic three hour lunch. On Thursday we met at the spiffy lipstick-red meatball wagon outside Mia Dona.

         I’d heard tales of lines down the block. But there was no queue this wind-whipped day and Naomi had already purchased two cartons of meatballs when I arrived a bit late.

         “I was just about to go inside to keep the meatballs warm,” she greeted me.

Mama Rosa’s melting meatballs in spicy tomato sauce on focaccia. Photo: Gael Greene.

        “Meatball sandwich,” I cried. “It’s the famous meatball sandwich we want!” Clutching one $7 foil-wrapped square from the cart, we ducked into the restaurant just starting to fill up at 12:45.

         “A table for two for lunch,” I said, so the manager would know we weren’t just two penny pinchers sharing a meatball sandwich. He looked uncertain. It seems the meatball fanatics hang out at the bar.

         But fortunately or unfortunately he decided he couldn’t say no to me and we got our corner table. Frankly, I’d not been back to Mia Dona since Sam Sifton’s slashing just a week after my own perfect meal in March. Had we been in the same little trattoria, I wondered?

         Now we’re ooohing and aaahing over Mama Rosa’s meatballs, four of them soft and sensuous, tucked, with a thin layer of caciocavallo chesse, arugula, luscious tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Romano cheese, into toasted ricotta-potato focaccia. These are the rustic orbs that took first place over meaty little spheres from Felidia, Locanda Verde, A Voce, Cesare Casella, the Meatball Shop, and even Rocco DiSpirito’s Mom’s at Meatball Madness last month, 44 entries in all.

Donatella checks out the meatballs and sends out zeppole for our dessert. Photo: Gael Greene.

        Naomi and I definitely did not need much more, but we rallied for splendid braised octopus, perfectly cooked and tossed with watercress, preserved lemon and pickled fennel. I needed to taste the eggplant parmigiana Sifton likened to a “sandwich interior taken from a deli in Anywhereville.” It was the same elegant dish I’d loved, piquant sauce, eggplant merely dusted with flour rather than egg-dipped and crumbed, “the way they do it in Naples” said Donatella.

         She’d wandered in to say hello and to be sure we didn’t leave without her gift of zeppole – mini fritters to dip in a lovely lemony cream “on the verge of being lemon curd,” as Naomi put it.

         On our way out, my friend bought a second tub of freelance meatballs with extra sauce, sayng: “With pasta, this will be our dinner tonight.”

         206 East 58th Street between Third and Second Avenues. 212 750 8170. Lunch Monday to through Friday noon to 2 pm, Dinner Monday through Friday noon to 5:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday 5 to 10:30 pm. Meatball cart from noon to 3 pm.

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