September 26, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Arias at Lincoln: Act Two
Reserved Chef Jonathan Benno at Lincoln has morphed into Superchef. Photo: Steven Richter
It is thrilling to watch a shy and insecure adolescent grow into her or his bones and emerge magnetic, an irresistible beauty. That’s what’s happened at Lincoln Ristorante. I'm asking myself if this is the best Italian restaurant in town. I sensed a breakthrough at a summer lunch my friends orchestrated in May. I didn’t really want to go – Lincoln is expensive for me, over-fussy, not worth it. I was the first critic but not the last to find its ballyhooed launch a disappointment. (Click here to read my November 2010 BITE)
This lavish chicken salad at a summer lunch got my attention. Photo: Gael Greene
But that recent May afternoon was charged with surprises. I basked in the daylight shimmer. I marveled at the clean perfection of my soft shell crab in its beer batter crunch, admired how a garden of pickled onions, radish and celery smartly cut the richness. The drift of lemon mayonnaise - for someone like me who can never get enough mayonnaise - made me giddy.
Once stingy portions came piled high this day – the grilled chicken salad with orange, red onion, and parmesan shards could feed a quartet of my mom’s Mah Jongg flotilla. Instead of four pokey little pasta blimplettes, there were seven luscious and plump agnolotti – prettier than a vintage quilted Chanel pocketbook - stuffed with spring lamb in a perfect lamb sauce, not too reduced, not too airy, but just right, with wilted leaves of marjoram for a fashionable touch.
From the bar you can hear the kitchen. From elsewhere you can watch it. Photo: Steven Richter
That May lunch left me wondering…was there a new Lincoln?
“Why are we going to Lincoln before the theater?” the Road Food Warrior asked one evening last month. “We have half a dozen spots we love just steps away. Lincoln is expensive. And you hated it.”
I told him about the astonishing lunch. “We don’t want to eat a lot before the theater,” I said. “We’ll sit at the bar, share a salad and each have a pasta. It won’t cost that much,” I assure him.
Now everything about the house seems smooth. Masters of bumptious blurtings in my earliest 2010 tastings have been replaced or drilled. The servers have professional starch and actually know what they’re talking about. The two women tending bar - and us - remember that Steven’s favorite non-alcoholic beer is Kaliber and that I can’t eat grapefruit. Very four-star. Pouring tap water, remembering ice in a glass with a spoon, presenting the olive oil bottle in the proud showing of the colors ambitious Italian restaurants require: It’s our olive oil. Masseria Cusmai olive oil from Bari in Puglia. A small pour into a little saucer.
Prettier than a vintage Chanel bag: Plump lamb-filled agnolotti. Photo: Gael Greene
The $100 couturier toast holders (with house made crisps from the opening prologue that exhausted my patience in my original review) are gone. Did everyone find the overstaged crisps a bit fussy? Instead, there is a selection in a big wooden bowl: Slices of Amy’s Breads’s rustic Italian white and triple-seeded integrale, alongside the house’s own constantly changing focaccia (wondrously tomato smeared tonight), and assertive grissini with its after-kick of pepperoncini heat. A great restaurant will have great bread even if it’s dangerous for those of us with the self control of a gnat.
Bigeye tuna with lightly pickled vegetables, a gift from the chef. Photo: Steven Richter
It wasn’t easy finding a bowl wide enough for the grissini. It had to be designed by the furniture maker from Brooklyn who works on contract repairing nicks and dents in the paneling. The silver toast holders will probably become Christmas gifts. Noblesse oblige.
A great burrata and supernal tomatoes will spoil you for anything less. Photo: Steven Richter
That quick pre-theater stop, with several extra tastes from the kitchen -- assaggi in Italian (I cannot be anonymous here) -- is a revelation too. The chef plays a fine hand of crostini. Something as familiar and predictable as house made mozzarella on a slice of heirloom tomato with its masterly tapestry of textures and tang invokes the first Oh My God swoon.
A satin swell of swordfish belly invokes a gasp too, and I am astonished that the mix of watermelon and radicchio gets my approval. A side of gnocchi floating in butter was good from day one. It’s hard to resist now. I agree with Steven there is too much oil sitting in the bowl of his linguine alle vongole, but the pasta is properly firm and little neck and razor clams are delicious punctuated with shishito peppers and pancetta. My squid ink black strozzapreti in a toss of impeccably cooked sea critters salted with capers and olive is a work of art - little nubbins of shrimp, deliriously tender. If I weren’t eating and sharing it, I would be equally happy wearing it.
Expect an explosion of ricotta from Lincoln’s amazing gnudi. Photo: Steven Richter
Clearly, chef Jonathan Benno, so tight and straitjacketed in the feverish spotlight of Lincoln’s $20 million opening, is wearing his Superchef duds now. If I weren’t already hooked, the polenta freschi he sends out would seal the verdict. (Freschi indicates a powder of fresh corn.) I feel an almost drug-like reaction to its mascarpone richness and the pique of pecorino. We were seeing the arousing War Horse that evening, so I didn’t really need the double espresso to keep me awake. It was just a marvelous bolt of insurance.
To confess: I really wanted Lincoln to be a masterpiece. I have a special soft spot for Patina Group leader Nick Valenti. He was a Calabrian-born innocent of 20 when he came to work at Restaurant Associates, near the end of its Joe Baum era, and began his climb to the top. His willingness to close his restaurants ringing the garden in Rockefeller Center has made possible Citymeals Annual Chefs Tribute to James Beard for 26 years.
Unami dazzle: Sea scallops and blood sausage on lentils. Photo: Steven Richter
Lincoln was meant to be a jewel of the new campus at Lincoln Center. I liked its asymmetric sweep and glass façade. The grass roof struck me as silly till I noticed couples picnicking up there, stretched out napping and necking…suddenly getting it. Valenti never invoked the detail mania of Joe Baum in his comments about Lincoln but I believe he had Baum on the brain when styling the place – captains in suits, waiters in vests, the recitations, right down to the shelf inside each stall in the ladies room for evening bags, a Baum powder room rule.
Still, was it really as good as I was finding it? In my instinctive pinchpenny cloud, I’d avoided entrees $30 to $40. How could I shout out about a new Lincoln without tasting Secondi?
Peking duck breast roasted whole with peaches tonight, figs tomorrow. Photo: Steven Richter
Back we went a week ago. I invited a fussy friend who could afford to join us for dinner. He liked facing the kitchen, I liked facing the pool and the campus. It was still warm and there were tables set outside. The house offers a glass of Prosecco. Not for me. “You might like this one,” says sommelier Aaron von Rock, “It’s a single vineyard Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut Crede. Like brut Champagne.” I don’t like brut Champagne either but I don’t want to seem too Anton Ego-esque (cloned from Ratatouille), so I accept an inch and sip. With its unusually hyper tingle, the surrender begins: the peppery oil, the saffron arancini with fontina, the bread service, the creamy white bean dip topped with dried olive - “olive crumble,” our waiter calls it. It could make a saintly bean soup. Garlicky and thinned with lemon, it’s a spread for bread that doesn’t need a spread. To lap it up, I use my breadstick, which also doesn’t need adornment.
Pasta nubbins with spicy lamb sausage, sweet peppers, eggplant, ricotta. Photo: Steven Richter
There are 150 seats, most of them full, a big jump from the measured pace at Per Se where Benno channeled Thomas Keller’s designs. But the new Benno, master impresario visible behind glass in his conductor’s kitchen spot, busy as he is, seems to focus on us. Mascarpone beaten in while the livers are still warm enriches chicken liver mousse on crunchy Melba toast. It’s a gift. My friend, just back from three weeks slimming at the Golden Door, forgets his resolve to eat light. He discovers the sommelier is willing to find two half-glasses of red (at $5 per half glass) to enhance his choices: Heirloom tomatoes with the shocking lushness of buttery burrata and the green of lampascioni, a little bulb-like plant from Sardinia, and duck with peaches – the breast roasted whole and rare, the leg confit’d, the fruit ripe and firm, turnips and purslane for crunch, bitterness and color.
You don’t have to be a pennypincher to order an eggplant side as dinner. Photo: Steven Richter
I watch my friend Bob – who couldn’t understand my restaurant choice - beginning to realize Lincoln’s amazing metamorphosis as we share and pass the smartly dressed leaves of escarole – erratically torn and tender – with white anchovy in a Caesar dressing, and a mini amuse of the menu’s bigeye tuna with lightly pickled vegetables and an anchovy dancing on top. Benno’s gnudi with summer vegetables poached in butter are unlike any I’ve ever tasted – little pouches exploding ricotta in your mouth. A sensuous plot that could send us all to the fat farm for a month.
I’ve had more than enough to eat. I wish I could cancel my scallops, but aren’t entrées what brought us here? Two daringly rare scallop giants are lightly caramelized next to a disc of homemade blood sausage tasting of apple pie spices – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove - in a rubble of almost meaty lentils. Batons of lightly pickled Swiss chard are an effort to dilute the richness. As if a patch on his shirt would make Bill Gates more of a regular guy. A side of elegant eggplant parmesan could be a small entrée too. And Steven’s second pasta of the night, malloreddus with lamb sausage, sweet peppers, eggplant and ricotta, must be tasted and added to the hit parade of triumphs.
Let dessert be a celebration of fruit like this complex apricot tortino. Photo: Steven Richter
At this point no one wants dessert but…it’s my job. I can’t bypass apricots, a summer perishable that will soon be gone. Again, these are thrillingly firm, their apricot flavor somehow magnified, sprawling over and around layered apricot sorbet and a fruity juniper berry semifreddo on pistachio Genoise.
As the theater empties and I watch the crowds outside passing our window, I wonder why so few are heading here for a drink or glass of Moscato with dessert. Maybe War Horse is too searing. Or maybe Wednesday nights don’t lead to lingering. Perhaps they only recall the lukewarm reviews and haven’t yet discovered Lincoln’s new exuberance.
With just two glasses of wine, the bill is $80 per person, Bob exults. (No charge for the chef’s extras, of course). He can’t wait to come back with his wife and friends to celebrate his discovery. He’s shouting out his own personal review: “Brilliant. Delish!” He’s collecting names and cell numbers of maitre d’s and sommelier. That’s what Bob does. A restaurant’s fussy and favorite customer.
We’ll be back too. Sides or a shared salad and a pasta each could be an everyday dinner for us. But you should come to be dazzled by a chef who has always been meticulous and fiercely serious, indulged by a company that might like that third star, if not a fourth. Experience the curious combination of opulence, curiosity and tasteful restraint of Jonathan Benno. If you hurry you might still get to taste corn or a peach.
142 West 65th Street. 212 359 6500, Open daily from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm.