Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Expensive but spectacular food at Lincoln

As you may have noticed, I do my fair share of dining out, and cheap bastard/points junkie that I am, I try to make as many reservations as I can through Opentable. Because Opentable means Opentable points, and Opentable points mean Opentable dining cheques (yes, with a que, not a ck). They're basically free money to spend like cash at any restaurant that takes Opentable reservations. So with a $50 dining cheque to my name, I decided to make a last-minute, midweek reservation at an absurdly expensive restaurant and blow it all on myself. Because really, how often do you get to do that?

Well, if you're thinking absurdly expensive restaurant that takes Opentable reservations, look no further than Lincoln, the new Jonathan Benno outpost at Lincoln Center. It's been acclaimed for its architecture, but reviews on the food have been mixed. So what did I find?

In short, a beautiful dining room, showstopping food, and tepid service. (And, um, high prices. Did I mention that?) The room is sleek and mostly glass, offering expansive views of the Lincoln center courtyard, 65th Street, and the open kitchen, depending on where you look.

Service, however, wasn't as sleek as the views. My waiter rushed me in ordering, despite the fact that I had a very early reservation in a nearly empty restaurant, and didn't seem thrilled at my salad order; nor was he happy to see the dining cheque at the end (regardless of my 32% tip on the pre-tax total...and the fact that the cheque is apparently just like cash--??). Fortunately, much of my interaction was with a runner/water-filler/quasi-waiter (I couldn't quite figure his role out), who was friendly and personable and all-around awesome.

But what you really care about is the food, right? Right. As soon as I sat down, I was offered a couple of pieces of flatbread in a creative holding contraption-- think sideways desktop file holder--and a dish of chile breadsticks. Both were rather forgettable, but they whet my palate for the voluptuous and lip-smacking glass of Erbaluce I ordered, which is incidentally one of my favorite wines and one you rarely see on by-the-glass menus.

Some crunchy carbs to ease you into the meal

Erbaluce-- it's a pretty color, to boot

And just as I was about to be disappointed with the mediocre bread offerings, I was offered a choice of three REAL breads: a sesame slice, a white rustic slice, and sundried tomato focaccia. Is there even a thought process there? Focaccia, please! They offered a small dish of white-bean paste, which was smooth and mild, and a small tub of floral olive oil, which was some of the most vibrant and flavorful olive oil I've ever tasted. The focaccia itself was outstanding, among the best bread offerings I've had: super-oily in the best way possible, with an incredibly stretchy interior, a few bits of sun dried tomato for flavor, and coarse salt scattered across the top. Ohhhhghghghgh drool.

Om nom nom nom nom nom

Oh, and then they brought over the day's assaggi, which is their equivalent of an amuse-bouche. This was a tiny fried pasta parcel filled with pureed squash, kind of like an empanada. It was fresh-from-the-fryer hot, subtly sweet, and entirely addictive.

Despite appearances, not a Totino's Pizza Roll

Yes, there is focaccia salt on my thumb

Finally, the main course: the Insalata Verde Mista. This was a pile of delicate mixed greens atop a few well-roasted vegetables: a roasted red and yellow pepper, a sliver of tender eggplant, an artichoke heart, and a tiny bit of fennel. All vegetables were spiced and oiled and given as much flavor as is possible to lend to garden vegetables.

The veggies are hidden, but they're there

But who are we kidding, this whole deal is but a lead-up to the dessert course. There are several appealing options on the Lincoln dessert menu, and while I pondered the Tiramisu (described as "tiramisu meets creme brulee"--hmmm...) as well as the chocolate-lover's Zuccotto, when it came time to decide I went straight for the Crostata di Mele. Out of left field, I know; it's not something I'd usually order, but by gosh, I wanted an apple tart.

And it was a fabulous choice, if I do say so myself. This delight consisted of a butter-cake-like base covered with caramel-cooked apples, all topped with the perfect buttery crumb topping. The cake sat on a smear of pastry cream and was matched perfectly with a quenelle of mascarpone gelato, cool and sweet without competing with the apples' flavor. A bite that included gelato, butter cake, stewed apple, crumb topping, and pastry cream was a big bite indeed-- but as close to pastry perfection as I've had in a long while. And it's worth noting that the portion was huge, definitely enough for two to share (or, you know, for one of me).

Best. Apple. Tart. EVER.

Finally, the sated diner is left with a plate of mignardises. There was some sort of caramel cream cookie sandwich (not my favorite); a take on the Milano, with butter cookies sandwiching semisweet chocolate (surprisingly also not as good as hoped); a sesame biscotto (exactly as you'd expect it to taste); a gianduja chocolate (a grown-up take on the Reese's peanut butter cup, with a hazelnut butter base crowned with chocolate and topped with a candied hazelnut); and finally, the breakout star of the collection, a pistachio-marzipan confection that was nutty, chewy, and berry-inflected all at once.

That homely green thing was the best

Phew. There was a lot of food, and nearly all of it was quite good or better. But you know what the best part of the evening may have been? Just sitting there, watching Jonathan Benno in his open kitchen, witnessing the cooks moving smoothly, listening to the controlled hubbub, and basically being privy to the action of a high-quality restaurant. I know I'm a bit of a fine dining groupie, but I loved it.

My meal-- appetizer, glass of wine, dessert, came to $43 pre-tax. Yes, that's ridiculous, although with all the extras they throw your way, you get quite a bit of food. And if you happen to have a $50 dining check to fritter away somewhere, Lincoln is pretty much the perfect place to do it. You'll get a four Offset Spatula meal and a front-row seat to the action in the kitchen.

Lincoln Ristorante
142 W. 65th Street, between Amsterdam and Broadway

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