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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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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