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.

 

Share

top 100: esca

I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: a bust up, a blow out, the discovery of an out and out lemon undeserving of its place in the vaunted Top 100. For some reason, however, I never expected it to happen at Batali and Bastianich’s Esca. Mario and Joe, respectively, are the forces behind an impressive group of critically acclaimed restaurants, including Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa, Otto, and the Eataly megaplex. Together they’ve taken a cuisine which for generations dwelled in a red sauce ghetto and forged an authentic four-star Italian experience. These restauranteurs know what they are doing – which made my recent meal at Esca all the more disappointing. For starters, the rock ‘n’ roll is too loud by half and the lemon yellow walls are in need of a fresh coat of paint. (On the first day of spring – with the weather happily cooperating – could there be anything more off-putting than looking out a window and realizing that the Lincoln Tunnel traffic crawling down Ninth Avenue commands a more serene vista than the scuffed and shabby room where you’re about to dine?) Pressed for time, the reservationist forgave my late arrival yet things got off to a bumpy start when a few simple menu questions left my waiter befuddled. So without help I settled on the two-flight tasting of crudo for which the restaurant is famous. Arriving first, a trio of winners: a plump oyster, satisfying and briny, diver scallop in tangerine-pressed olive oil and peppercorns, and my favorite, local porgy with flaky sea salt. The second plate offered more mixed results: beautifully marbled Arctic char was oddly cut and improbably stringy, a Cherry Stone clam ceviche had all the unpleasant mouth-feel of a spicy rubber band, and yet razor clams with chilis, scallion and mint were delicious and invigorating. (I could easily pop back a dozen and not bat an eye.) The inconsistencies continued with the arrival of polipo, a perfectly charred – and for $17, entirely too small – piece of flavorful octopus on a bland bed of giant corona beans, which were themselves perched atop a flavorless mound of undressed frisée. House made fusilli with gulf shrimp and zucchini flowers was ultimately fine – yet the reality of a few wilted greens tossed into some pasta didn’t quite deliver on the promise inherent in those ethereal spring blossoms. Nobody seems to be in charge at Esca – the contrariety is evident not only between courses but often within a single dish. It’s all the more frustrating because you can sense the good intentions even if the follow-through never delivers. Dessert, alas, didn’t deliver either – though I must admit it never even got the chance. I mentioned to the waiter at the start of service how I needed to be firmly out the door by 7:30. At 7:40 she wandered over oblivious with a dessert menu in hand. That inability to sustain a thought, I’m afraid, explains the Esca experience in a nutshell.

Share

marriage equality meets the marketplace

 

Share

eataly yum yum

Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Italian food emporium, Eataly, has to be the oddest resto-market combination in the city.  Sprawling over 50,000 square feet in the Flatiron District, it’s a grocery store, gelateria, pizzeria, macellum, bakery, and handful of restaurants rolled into one. (There’s a wine shop, too, with it’s own separate entrance.) As visually appealing as a funhouse – and equally confusing at first – it’s a sensory overload of pasta, olive oil, cured meats, and  Italian specialties tailor-made for the hungry shopper.  Anyone familiar with Batali’s Otto will recognize the stand-up salumeria, where you can order a healthy board of salume and a bottle of wine at a reasonable price without the hassle of sitting down to a formal meal.  I should put formal in inverted commas, however, as the fish, pizza, and pasta eating stations appear to have all the casual appeal of a food court at the mall.  Having finished a generous snack of meat and cheese – plus a trio of crostini topped with oil-cured tuna, cannellini beans, and spaghetti squash, respectively -  I still had a glass half-full of Montepulciano.  So I did what everyone else seemed to be doing and took my drink, grabbed a basket, and went shopping.  Suddenly Eataly went from being more than a market, more than just another foodie clusterfuck – it became a cocktail party.  Trust me: it’s much more fun to talk to the cheese monger about the provenance of fresh ricotta when you’ve got a drink in your hand.

Share

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.