Dining out is fun. But dining out with your best girl friends is the best! So once a month, I pick a place, and then we wine, dine, and catch up. In December, we ate at Lincoln Ristorante at Lincoln Center.
When Jonathon Benno opened Lincoln Ristorante in the Fall of 2010, the food community was on high alert. And how could they not be? Benno was Thomas Keller's Chef de Cuisine at Per Se for nearly 6 years and everyone expected greatness from his prodigal son. (Benno's impressive resume also included stints at The French Laundry, Daniel, Gramercy Tavern and Craft. )
But from the moment it opened, criticism and disappointment abounded. The NY Times' Critic, Sam Sifton, noted in his November 2010 review:
Mr. Benno and the Patina Group still have some distance to go. They have built a restaurant that lacks a center — a restaurant in which it is possible to eat well without really having a good time.
He subsequently awarded it 2 out of 4 "stars", which had to be a huge blow to Benno and his financial backers who were clearly aiming much higher.
To make matters worst, the modern design of the restaurant -- with its' sloping roof line, replete with a grass roof, and dark banquettes (to the right) -- left many people cold. Adam Platt, the food critic for NY Magazine, compared the space to the both the Star Ship Enterprise and an private jet hangar:
"Who beamed us aboard the Starship Enterprise?" muttered one of the suburban voyagers at my table as we waited for our cocktails to arrive at Lincoln Ristorante, the dazzling postmodern dining palace that opened earlier this fall at the northern end of the newly refurbished Lincoln Center. Peering from our darkened corner banquette, we could see all sorts of strange, unearthly sights. Unlike the stylish, dungeon like restaurants downtown, this one was as big as a private-jet hangar and sheathed largely in glass.
Let's just say that his thoughts on the food, serving size and price were not exactly flattering either. He subsequently awarded it one out of five stars. Ouch. That was a real slap, even from the grumpy Platt.
I ate at Lincoln shortly after it opened, and have to say, I was a bit disappointed with the food and service as well. In particular, I remember having a very pricey rib eye steak (for two), which was not properly charred or particularly flavorful. The kitchen also sent out a complimentary dish of gnocchi with white truffles, which was inexplicably poorly prepared and ill conceived (i.e. the gnocchi were rubbery, and if I recall correctly, sitting in a pool of thin broth).
But after one year, the tide of public opinion seems to be shifting: In September, Gael Greene wrote a glowing review after revisiting the restaurant several times. One week later, Steve Cuozzo of the NY Post also noted that "Today, Lincoln is better" (although he did note continued inconsistencies in the fish and meat dishes). So it was time to take another look.
Lincoln offers an al la carte menu, which is traditionally divided into Antipasti, Primi (pasta) and Secondi (meat or fish) and Piccoli Piatti (small plates or "sides"). They also offer a 5 course tasting menu for $85, with an optional wine pairing for an additional $55. We opted for latter, with the wine pairing.
We started our evening with cocktails. Mia and I had La Storia di Manhattan, which was an autumn inspired elixir of Van Winkle Rye, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, Allspice Liquor and Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters. Amazing. Ava had the gin-based Francesco De Pinedo, which was made out of Hayman's Old Tom Gin, Creme de Violette, Luzardo Il Maraschino Liquore and fresh lemon.
After we were served our cocktails, the wait staff disappeared for quite a while. We were admittedly in no hurry, but we were all starving (and drinking strong cocktails), so some finger food would have been greatly appreciated.
All was forgiven when the amuse bouche of chicken liver mousse on toasted bread arrived. As you can see from the picture above, the mousse was light and billowy. The trick? According to Gaele Greene, the kitchen whisks marscapone into the warm chicken livers. That will do it. It was finished off with a sprinkle of chopped pistachios, which added both texture and color to the finished dish. Just luscious.
In lieu of butter, the restaurant serves a creamy white bean spread with the bread service. (Olive oil is also poured table side.) We all loved it. Our only complaint: we were never offered a second piece of bread to finish it off!
The first course was Crudo di Capesante (Raw Scallops), which consisted of Nantucket Bay Scallops, Cucumber, Radish, Lampascioni, and Pachino Tomato Vinaigrette. Mia was smittened by the dish, later noting:
The scallops were very sweet and that sweetness was really nicely balanced by the light vinaigrette and the thinly sliced cucumbers. Especially for those who find the flavor of scallops somewhat cloying, this dish managed to balance it very well.
I did not taste the dish, but I was very intrigued by it. Scallops are fairly common-place on high end menus but the same cannot be said for lampascione, or Tussel Hyacinth Bulbs. Tassel Hyacinth grow wild in Southern Italy, but their bulbs are mostly foraged and eaten in Puglia. The bulbs look like small onions, and are quite labor intensive to clean and cook.
Given their relative obscurity, it is quite remarkable that Benno is familiar with lampascione. It is also a testament to his skill that he incorporated them so successfully in this lovely dish.
Ava does not eat raw fish, and I do not eat scallops. So the kitchen sent out Insalata Di Funghi Nebrodini and Polpoe e Patat alla Contadina as substitutions.
Insalata Di Funghi Nebrodini (Nebrodini Mushroom Salad) was simply prepared with marinated potatoes, broccoli, dandelion greens, and a pignoli (nut) dressing. I suspect that the simplicity was by design: Nebrodini Bianco are rare mushrooms which grow in the Nebroni Mountain Range in Sicily. They are coveted for their sweet, earthy taste and dense ('meaty') texture -- and Benno clearly wanted them to take center stage.
Mia subsequently described the Nebrodini as "substantial, with a mild flavor." Spot on, as usual.
Polpoe e Patat alla Contadina (Peasant Octopus and Potatoes) was a flavor packed dish that consisted of grilled octopus, braised potatoes, Castelvertrano olives, and caper berries.
This dish is a lovely example of Cucina Povera, or the food of the poor. Benno's version has a tomato/olive oil base, which is typically made in Puglia and Sicily. (I have seen "white versions" that have a wine base.) The octopus was fork tender, and the Castelvertrano olives (from Sicily) and caper berries added a bright (mildly salty) snap to the stew. It was just so good!
Given that all of the first course dishes celebrated Sicilian cuisine/ingredients, it is no surprise that the Sommelier paired the food with a Sicilian wine: Etna Bianco Graci 2010
The Graci Winery is run by Alberto Graci, who left a lucrative finance job in Rome to return to his roots in Sicily. Graci bought several vineyards on Mount Etna (an active volcano), and since 2004, has been turning out world class wine. (This wine won the prestigious Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri Award this year)
According to Graci,
Etna is a special place. First, it has the sun of Sicily but a climate moderated by altitude. Second, it has volcanic soils. Third, it has old ungrafted vineyards.
The wine is a blend of 70% Carricante and 30% Catarratto, and has lovely citrus and mineral notes. A real treat. Or as the sommelier said, "This wine has single handedly put Sicily on the wine making map."
The second (Primi) course was Spaghetti con Granchio e Ricci di Mare (Spaghetti with Crab and Sea Urchin).
Benno's skill with pasta was clearly on display here. The spaghetti had a butter-based sauce which was a rich back drop for the delicate peekytoe crab and sea urchin. Colorful peperoncinio peppers added a lovely color contrast and a punch of heat.
The pasta was paired with Fiano di Avellino Colli di Lapio 2010, from Campania.
Colli di Lapio is a young estate, located in the village of Lapio, northeast of Avenillo. Many consider this the Grand Cru Region for Fiano, and this vineyard is known to produce one of the best.
The wine is 100% Fiano, and completely vinified in stainless steel (I can't believe I just typed those words!). The wine is straw color and is often described as "elegant". It has notes of fruit (we tasted green apple; Robert Parker Jr of the Wine Advocate noted grapefruit), nuts, white flowers and minerals. The wine is medium/full bodied and has a long finish. It pairs beautifully with seafood.
Like the Etna Bianco Graci 2010, this wine won the prestigious Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri Award this year. (It is available at Sherry-Lehman Wines and Spirits in Manhattan for $23.)
The third course was Gnudi di Ricotta e Zucca (Ricotta Dumplings and Squash).
Gnudi (Italian for "naked") are Tuscan Ricotta Dumplings, which are essentially ravioli without the pasta shell. Traditionally, gnudi are served with a tomato or bechamel sauce, but Benno gives this rustic dish a decidedly modern twist -- by serving it with roasted butternut squash, hazelnuts, sage and brown butter.
The gnudi were paired with Montefalco Rosso Di Filippo 2008 from Umbria. The Di Filippo vineyard is an organic, biodynamically run property, which produces interesting, reasonably priced wine.
The Montelfalco Rosso Di Filippo is a blend of 60% Sangiovese, 30% Barbera and 10% Sagrantino grapes.
The wine is ruby red colored, medium bodied and dry. It has a woody aroma with notes of red berries and earthiness; the finish is long and slightly (moderately?) tannic.
This wine was my least favorite pour. I think this was due, in part, to the pairing. To my palate, this dish -- devoid of protein -- could not tame the strong tannins in the wine. As a result, I found the Montelfalco Rosso almost astringent when I first tasted it. But when paired with grilled meat (see below), it was more drinkable.
Our final savory course was Sirloin Steak with Root Vegetables and a Red Wine Reduction.
Unfortunately, we hit our first snag during this course: namely Ava asked for her steak to be medium well done, but the waiter failed to note that Mia and I wanted our steaks medium rare. Subsequently, the entire table was served well done meat.
When the the sommelier realized the error (while pouring the next wine course), he insisted that we send the steaks back. So we did. And while we waited for the steaks to come out, another round of Montefalco Rosso was poured on the house.
Ava loved this dish, as the meat was cooked to her liking but still moist. Mia and I were less smittened -- noting that the red wine reduction was a bit salty and the vegetables were bland. (I personally think that the dish would have had more depth if the vegetables were roasted and the sauce was further reduced.)
I was also disappointed that the meat station prepared one steak, which the chef cut in half before serving. A uniform char is an integral part of a good steak -- and we missed out on that. If only they had pulled the first steak off the grill 6 minutes earlier!
This course was paired with Copertino Rosa del Golfo Negroamaro-Malvasia Nero 2007 from Puglia. (This wine is 70% Negroamaro and 30% Malvasia Nero)
After 2 pours of the Montefalco Rosso, I passed on the Copertino. This was a shame, as Copertino wines are generally robust wines, which pair well with red meat. I will need to purchase a bottle at some point and report about.
Of note: The Copertino is grossly over-priced on the wine list. The restaurant is offering it for $65, while it retails for $13. That is an extreme mark up, wouldn't you say?
Kumquat sorbet was served as a palate cleanser.
The dessert course was Torta di Cioccolato Con Castagne (Chocolate Ganache, Candied Chestnuts, Buckwheat Pasta Frolla, Olive Oil Marmellata and Thyme-Fior Di Latte Gelato)
The chocolate Ganache Torta was competently prepared, but nothing out of the ordinary. The Thyme-Fior Di Latte Gelato, on the other hand, was a real stand out.
Fior Di Latte ("milk flower) Gelato is common-place in Italy, but not readily found in the US. The gelato is made from cream, milk, (a small amount of ) sugar and salt. It is very rich, but not overly sweet. The addition of the fresh thyme -- normally incorporated into savory dishes -- worked well. You could taste it, but it didn't steal the show.
Our evening ended on a lovely note with a glass of Moscadeddu Dettori 2007 from Sardinia -- made from 100% Moscato grapes.
Tenute Dettori is an organic, biodynamically run vineyard owned by Alessandro Dettori. The grapes for this wine are hand picked and macerated (uncrushed) for 2-4 days in cement vats. After the wine has been siphoned off, it remains in cement vats for another 2-3 years before bottled. Remarkably, the wine is neither filtered, nor clarified, prior to bottling.
In describing the origin of this wine, Dettori noted:
I have never liked those Muscats that are overly heavy, caramelised, and cloying. I prefer rather work in the direction of elegance and finesse. I prefer lightness and delicacy.
I must say, "elegant" is an understatement! This wine is beautiful, with scents and flavors of apricot, citrus and flowers. Ava and I loved it -- and even managed to finish off Mia's glass as well!
In summary, Lincoln is a lovely restaurant which continues to evolve. Small glitches continue to come up: In particular, Benno needs to reign in the salt shaker and get control of his meat station. But overall, he and his staff are cooking innovative, unique and delicious food. It is really such a welcomed addition to the Lincoln Center Campus and the NYC dining scene as a whole.
And if you are looking for Per Se. Stop. Turn around. And head south.