top 100: lincoln

I do love a surprise. Especially a delicious one – which is exactly what’s tucked under the grass-covered roof of Jonathan Benno’s glass-walled Lincoln. As sophisticated as the Henry Moore sculpture which sits in a reflecting pool at the entrance, Lincoln doesn’t just wax nostalgic for how a big city restaurant should feel, it delivers. Lincoln – all hail the Upper West Side food gods – is a restaurant for grown ups. Not buttoned-up or pretentious grown ups mind you, but the urbane, smart set which once populated many a Woody Allen film: attractive, somewhat attenuated New Yorkers partaking of the distinct difference between eating and having a meal. Proper drinks, substantive food, the dull murmur of smart chatter – all that’s missing from this light-filled room are the sinuous strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Buttery leather chairs are smooth and silent against a carpeted floor; the wait staff glide as if on wheels, as crisp with a pour of Collio Bianco as they are with a well-timed quip. Then there’s the food, which even my tablemate had to admit was a series of gustatory pleasures far more impressive than the oratorio for which we were reluctantly about to depart. For one long used to the cheek by jowl seating across the avenue at Fiorello’s or – god forbid – the ignominious cuisine at too many of the establishments which line the perimeter of Lincoln Triangle, it’s a little disorienting. The menu at Lincoln Ristorante – to use the restaurant’s full name – may not be strictly Northern Italian but it nevertheless feels that way: cool, collected, and stylishly composed, it’s a marked contrast to the swarthy, sweaty, Southern ambiance popularized by Mario Batali. Chef Benno calls his cuisine modern Italian, which is a far cry better than farm-to-table Italian, of which it shares an ethos, but it still doesn’t do justice to the precision techniques on display. Jumbo soft shell crab is lightly battered and deep fried, with a garnish of pickled green tomato, cucumber, celery, and red onion. Alongside a slice of smoked trout terrine, halved stalks of white asparagus are generously blanketed in a fine mince of egg and baby mache. Milk-fed pork shoulder, pecorino romano, and lots of black pepper go into the ravioli, which is as pillowy as any I’ve ever tasted. Long a staple of my childhood menu, had my family called flounder passera I probably would have eaten a lot more of it. Of course, it would have also helped had the fish been pan-fried, too, and perched atop a green sea of fava beans, pea leaves and the first of the spring peas. Who’d have guessed it’d turn out that mint zabaglione is all my childhood really lacked? Mixed roasted mushrooms sound like such a simple side dish and in fact they are, yet what a bowl of funghi: smoky shitakes, meaty hen o’ the woods, and earthly king trumpets in little more than butter, garlic and chives. Perhaps we’ve grown so accustomed to overly lyrical menu descriptions that to call a thing by its name alone feels a bit naive. Looking over the menu after the fact I realize that everything at Lincoln is so equanimously named: soft shell crab, white asparagus, pork ravioli, flounder, and zuppa inglese – a desert of macerated raspberry, lady fingers, and sabayon that beggars belief. Feel free to humor that naiveté at Lincoln; streetwise, studied, or simple, Chef Benno tells  – and cooks – it like it is.

 

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skewered and spit-roasted

Named after the symbol for the Santa Ana Pueblo, Corn Maiden is the fire-roasted restaurant at Hyatt Tamaya. Blending local Southwestern flavors with traditional tapas plates meant for sharing in an adobe-style home, chef Sam Reed incorporates native tradition into present day concepts beautifully with such starters as Crispy Quinoa Fritters with piquillo pepper coulis and razor-thin Buffalo Carpaccio dressed with shaved Reggiano and a chiffonade of basil. Skewered, spit-fired meats however are the specialty of the house and they, too, do not disappoint. Brought to the table on a sword, the house classic, k’uchininak’u, includes a fiery local chorizo, Fresno chile chicken, and a hunk of chile-rubbed heritage rib eye. A trio of sweet and savory sauces – mole, peach salsa, and a cactus chutney - sets off each of the individual meats, leaving barely any room for the accompanying potatoes au gratin, let alone any desert dessert.

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journey into the west

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top 100: le cirque

If you don’t believe it possible that any single establishment could embody the look, attitude, and (un)consciousness of an era, look no further than Le Cirque. In the go-go 1980’s Sirio Maccioni’s restaurant at the Mayfair Hotel was where the elite came to meet and eat. On any given evening you might find the Nancy’s (Reagan, Sinatra, and Kissinger, if you have to ask) cheek by jowl on a red leather banquette alongside European royalty, assorted movie stars, Jackie O, and an editor or two from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair furiously scribbling it all down. It wasn’t, however, solely about the intermingling of the power elite – it was also about the food. David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, Sottha Khun, Bill Telepan, and Geoffrey Zakarian all spent quality time in the kitchen at Le Cirque. And it should be remembered that under Daniel Boulud the restaurant ascended to four-star status, repeatedly regaled by the New York Times. Few people would argue that as the 20th century drew to an optimistic close Le Cirque epitomized not only everything a restaurant should be but also everything a city could be. Today – despite the bonfire of many an interim vanity – much of what made it great remains. For one there’s the impeccable white-jacketed service fronted by the most hospitable hosts in town. You are welcomed like an old friend – more to the point, an important friend – into one of the more elegant dining rooms in the city. The ceilings might soar double or triple-height but the mood is nevertheless cozy and intimée at a banquette overlooking the room. Le Cirque may have lost some of its buzzworthiness and fallen out of favor with the Page Six set but the air remains rarefied. If anything, the diminished spotlight only serves to focus the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food, which I’m happy to say succeeds from the first amuse to the final petit four. In between, a half-dozen meaty Blue Point oysters on the half shell are cause for celebration. So, too, a restrained rectangle of foie gras with quince jelly. The fish is impeccable: both turbot a la plancha atop olive oil crushed potatoes and john dory in a rich bouillabaisse broth make for satisfying main courses. And I dare you to find a desert to trump the ethereal Floating Island. Under the toque of Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi there remains a handful of oldies but goodies like lobster risotto, diver scallops with black truffle in puff pastry, baked Alaska and Chateaubriand for two, but for the most part Le Cirque has gracefully found its feet in the 21st century, moving beyond those flashy holdovers from another era – society swans included.

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arriba, aruba

Aruba is a desert island – but certainly not deserted. Off the coast of Venezuela – yet far from off the beaten path – Aruba has a dry, rumpled landscape so overflowing with candelabra cactus that homeowners cut them down and build fences out of their spiny trunks.

When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they promptly turned around and left, proclaiming it useless, an “isla inutil”.  The British later did the same, leaving the Dutch as the only takers.  And they pretty much turned it over to us NYers, who have taken to Aruba in droves, making it one of the top destinations for tri-state sun seekers.

Aruba sits outside the hurricane belt and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. It sports a pair of wide white-sand beaches on the southern coast, lined with up-market hotels; a reasonably safe and, in places, charming capital city that reflects a little of the island’s Dutch heritage; a wild and wooly northern coast for adrenaline junkies and adventure seekers; and an efficient modern airport that can land the jets needed for easy, direct flights.  Life is good here and Natalee Holloway notwithstanding, visitors can enjoy it without the twinge of guilt that often accompanies a vacation in a developing country.

To be warmly and genuinely welcomed by the people of Aruba is instantly relaxing.  This is not your typical salt-rimmed Caribbean island. And that goes a long way towards explaining why Aruba is so popular (an unheard of 40% rate of return visits) and why everyone is smiling as though they’re letting you in on their secret.

Oh, and did I mention the beach?

This is your guide to the best of our other “outer” borough.  And just in time for the snow, too.

BEST BEACH – PUBLIC

Most of the high-rise hotel resorts are situated along Palm Beach, a seven-mile stretch of powdery white sand and ultra-lazy lounge chairs.  However, Eagle Beach is just a short walk down the coast and a lot less crowded with sun worshipers and water sports enthusiasts.  The water is cooler and at certain times of the year huge turtles come ashore to nest.  Eagle Beach is a great walk in the morning or evening and an even better place for curling up with a significant other.

BEST BEACH – PRIVATE

One of the best features about staying at the sleek Renaissance Resort & Casino is access to the 40-acre private Renaissance Island – by way of a boat launch that motors into the hotel lobby, no less! Split into halves, the adults-only beach has a stand of friendly pink flamingo (just don’t get too close), while the family beach boasts iguanas and tropical birds.  Either way, the water is crystal clear and the crowds are left behind on the mainland.

BEST HOTEL – SINGLES & COUPLES

The boutique Renaissance Marina sits smack in the middle of the capital’s harborfront, close to all the action Aruba has to offer.  Plus the stunning pool, spa, 24 hour casino and lounge areas are strictly adults-only.  By day the Crystal Theater features the “Experience Aruba Panorama,” a quick tour of the islands history, people and culture on five jumbo screens.  By night it’s home to an action-packed-and-not-nearly-as-twee-as-it-sounds Let’s Go Latin show, the most extravagant collection of singing, dancing and acrobatic theatrics on the island.  The casual Aquarius Restaurant gives new life to the buffet concept with fresh mounds of all-you-can-eat lobsters, shrimp, scallops and steaks. For a little more romance and a lot less bustle, try staying across the road at the Ocean Suites, where you’ll have nothing between you and the sea.

BEST HOTEL – FAMILIES

The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is at the end of the famous Palm Beach.  Boasting the largest rooms on the island it makes for the best spot to vacation with your family – not on top of them.  Together you can enjoy one of the many activities on offer, like the Banana Boat or the Bon Bini Kids Club will keep the little ones supervised and entertained all day (or night) while you take to the sun (or the casino).

MUST EAT

One of Aruba’s newest and chicest restaurants, Pinchos Grill and Bar has a unique outdoor setting suspended on a pier, out and over the Caribbean Sea.  Comfortable rattan furniture and huge overstuffed pillows add to the laid-back al fresco ambiance. The menu consists almost entirely of pinchos or kabobs, but the secret is in the dipping sauces that come on the side.  Pinchos is also of one of the most beautiful and romantic spots to watch sunsets in Aruba.

MUST DO – ADVENTURE ON LAND

There is no better way to explore the island than on one of De Palm Tours off-road safari adventures.  A full day’s tour in one of their customized Land Rovers brings you along the wild, barren north coast, where you’ll see an Aruba few people know:  the fascinating Gold Mill ruins, impressive volcanic rock formations, the elegant Alto Vista Chapel, and the Fontein and Guadirkiri caves.  Your tour ends at De Palm Island, a private water park off the coast.  Leave the kids to play in the water slides while you wade into one of best snorkeling experiences in the Caribbean.  Surrounded by a soft coral reef, the water is teeming with tropical fish, including schools of majestic blue parrotfish.

MUST DO – ADVENTURE UNDER THE SEA

Hands down the coolest ride in Aruba is the 90-minute guided tour aboard one of Atlantis Submarines’ giant passenger subs.  Dive down over 100 feet to the Barcadera Reefs and see the remains of two spectacular shipwrecks. Along the way you get up close to some amazing sea life:  colorful schools of tropical fish, huge sponge gardens and the fascinating beauty of the coral fields.  Position yourself near the captain for the panoramic view and you’ll understand why Jacques Cousteau had one of the coolest gigs imaginable.

BEST BIRD WATCHING

The Aruba Ostrich Farm provides a personal encounter with these giant flightless birds.  Try feeding one of these prehistoric creatures, or better yet, get on top and attempt a ride.  A working breeding farm, there’s also an incubator for the giant eggs and makeshift hospital where you can see the adorable babies fresh out of the shell.

BEST DRINK

Forgo all those candy colored rum drinks with the paper umbrellas and plastic swords loaded with fruit. Locals reach for Balashi, a crisp cool beer the island began brewing when the cost of imported suds got too high. Nothing goes down better on a dry hot day.  And hops-heads can even take a free tour to see how it’s made. (Reservations required: [email protected])

BEST SUNSET 1

If you happen to still be out exploring the desert or the north coast of the island when the sun starts to sink, there is no more beautiful place to enjoy the view than at the quirky Alto Vista Chapel.  Amid rock formations and cacti, the small chapel built by missionaries in the mid-1700’s is reached by a long winding road that goes high above the sea.

BEST SUNSET 2

When the massive cruise ships come to town they are a sight to behold.  Docking right in town, these floating cities are a beautiful backdrop to the setting sun.  Blue Bar at the Renaissance not only serves a mean variety of cocktail treats, it also overlooks the pool and the harbor, making it an ideal spot to cuddle up on their cushy sofas and watch the sun sink behind the boats.

BEST BAR

Hosting two gigantic palapas on the white sand beach, overlooking the Caribbean sea, Moomba Beach Bar is a hidden gem offering a little a bit of everything:  the largest cocktail menu on Aruba, a wide variety of cold beers and a great casual menu with salads, sandwiches, burgers and snacks. Once you learn that Moomba is an Aboriginal word meaning “let’s get together and have fun,” you’ll realize that this is perhaps the most appropriately named spot in all of Aruba.  Grab a beach chair, get your feet in the sand and enjoy the live music.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Like the more famous parties in New Orleans and Rio, the month before Lent is Carnival time. The entire island participates in street parades with colorful costumes and floats, music, dancing, and the election of the Carnival Queen.  The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is an all-day celebration that takes over the streets of the capital, Oranjestad. 

BEST BONUS

Aruba is one of only three islands that provide pre-clearance for US citizens, allowing flights from Aruba to enter the US as domestic flights.  After check-in, head through passport control and security.  When you arrive home, the only wait you’ll have is at the luggage carousel. For more information:  CLICK HERE.

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sunset, top-of-the-world

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compass cactus, due south

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live blog: home on the range

Today we went out to a typical Patagonian ranch, or estancia.   This particular ranch, Estancia Fortin Chacabuco, is tucked in a geographic transition area between the arid steppe and the pre-mountain range. (The forest you saw on yesterday’s video is nearer to the Andes and so benefits from the rainfall coming off the Pacific Ocean.  Not ten miles out from the forest, the topography changes radically to arid steppe then high desert.)  The steppe features very little vegetation and spectacular panoramic veiws of Bariloche, Mount Tronador and the Rio Limay.

To better take advantage of those views, we got up on horseback to traverse the terrain.  Plus, after the video you can check out the great asado we had for lunch.

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