oscar, oscar, oscar

academy awards

If tonight’s Academy Awards were honestly about celebrating the past year’s achievements in cinema the evening would have a decidedly more Gallic flavor, as Michael Haneke’s tender and terrifying Amour ran circles around the competition. (My nod goes to Beasts of the Southern Wild, if it must be l’affaire Americaine.) But we’re being honest, right? With rare exception, Oscar celebrates compromise, commerce, and the elevation of some poor soul as the next “it girl.” (How else do you explain the explosive rise of the merely competent Jennifer Lawrence?) Argo is an immensely satisfying film – craftier and better told than Steven Spielberg’s laboriously prosaic Lincoln – but is it really “the best”? For a film that celebrates American exceptionalism Saturday matinee-style, enjoyability is just not good enough. If Hollywood felt the need to anoint one of their own, surely Quentin Tarantino’s messy masterpiece, Django Unchained, would better fit the bill. Disguised as a buddy picture, it does more to make visceral the evils and effects of slavery than anything seen on screen since Alex Haley’s Roots. That it delivers as entertainment, with style and not sermons, only sweetens the achievement. Still, I can’t help being haunted by the painterly composition and chiaroscuro of Amour – as if Vermeer took the frailty of life as his subject and not milkmaids and girls with pearl earrings. Stars Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give two of the most nakedly honest performances ever committed to celluloid. (That Trintignant was overlooked in favor of the likes of Bradley Cooper is a joke on the level of Compliance‘s masterly Ann Dowd getting passed over for Jacki Weaver smiling in the background of Silver Linings Playbook.) Oh, I will still be watching tonight, don’t get me wrong. Me and a billion-plus other people around the globe; for the sniping, the spectacle of who’s wearing what, and the endearing self-consciousness of Anne Hathaway’s unmitigated narcissism. I’m just not going to pretend that it’s about anything more than that.

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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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