Eventually, Jonathan Benno’s $20 million Lincoln should become the destination restaurant it’s meant to be. The food has a long way to go, but the digs are really nice.
This occurred to me as I chewed, and chewed, on the pork loin. The leathery texture seemed less challenging as I gazed at the Metropolitan Opera across the plaza, enticingly framed by Lincoln’s enormous glass walls.
So it goes at Lincoln Center’s latest addition, more than just a fancy trattoria serving a mixed-bag of ridiculously expensive entrees. Enter the glass and wood space, its roof a grassy hillock where Juilliard dancers soak up sun, and you’re part of one of the city’s great new gathering spots.
Then the build-your-own Negroni bar blurs the focus.
This aperitif is typically a tannic mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Lincoln offers 125 variants. I paired Hendricks (cucumbery), Aperol (orangey) and Lillet Blanc (flowery) for a lighter riff on the original. It was lovely.
Sip your potable, swivel in your leather chair and contemplate the reflecting pool outside -- if you’re sitting in the East room.
You then look at the menu and probably grow despondent. Benno’s backing comes from the Patina Restaurant Group, responsible for the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink, Macy’s Cellar Bar & Grill, Tortilla Jo’s at Disneyland and various other venues whose goal is to get you in, ply you with cost-effective inoffensive fare and get you out in a fixed period of time. And that’s exactly the type of efficiency many of Lincoln’s pre-theater diners undoubtedly will seek out.
The first item listed is a $16 salad. When Benno was chef at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, he paired sweet beets with a gel made stringent with Angostura bitters, a brilliant melange of earthy textures and flavors. Lincoln’s mixed-green salad could be anybody’s, and it’s oversalted.
There are easily assembled preparations like prosciutto with burrata and squash ($22). It’s well executed, the creaminess of the cheese offsetting the salty meat. Yet it’s no more distinctive than one served at a catered dinner party.
What’s better than pate before the Philharmonic? Not much. Lincoln ruins a $26 foie gras and oxtail terrine with bites of gristly fat. Across Broadway at noisy Bar Boulud, you can get some of the finest pate in the land for under $20.
Benno is best when he veers from the predictable.
Does any other cook plunge cod in a nutty prosciutto broth? I doubt it. Does anyone else cut razor clams to the same length as cavatelli? You don’t know which white batons are dough or mollusk until they’re in your mouth.
Cacciucco ($36) sensuously balances the tingle of silky, rare prawn and the cozy, fennel-infused broth they float in.
Fried lambs tongue, its musky tang lingering for minutes, gets a sweet treat of beets to soften the heady blow. Pair it with a glass of bone dry Lambrusco, a sparkling red whose bubbles scrub the gaminess off your tongue.
Items from the $110 tasting menu can be ordered a la carte. Be sure to ask for pricing in advance: A few little slices of insipid steak with bone marrow custard were $40 and a far cry from the massively flavorful rib cap Benno served at Per Se.
A single, stellar raviolo packed with a tiny, bisque-drenched lobster tail was excellent. It also was $38.
Malloreddus, little knob-shaped pasta with lemon and preserved tuna, is a cheaper deal off the chef’s menu at $22.
Benno knows rustic food like this from his days at the outstanding Craft. Buttered gnocchi evoke Tom Colicchio’s solid dumplings. But sardine pasta that’s indistinguishable from home cooked versions just isn’t worth $24, nor is mushy lasagna at $26. Chicken confit packs a punch of concentrated flavor; the accompanying breast is dry and pedestrian ($32).
Benno regains our trust with high-end versions of Italian-American classics, including unexpectedly light, greaseless eggplant Parmesan.
He wakes up tiramisu with coffee liqueur and a crispy chocolate tuile on top -- creme brulee meets baba au rhum. The typical sweetness of an airy ricotta cheesecake is delegated to a side of cinnamon gelato. It’s half cheese-plate, half dessert.
What lingers, though, are the dishes like that nutty cod and the intense lobster raviolo. They promise the kind of first- rate experience that only Lincoln’s prices now suggest. Rating: **
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: About $150 per person.
Sound Level: Moderate, rarely above 70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes; great views.
Inside tip: Solid, albeit pricey tripe at $18.
Special Feature: Many wines on the heavily Italian list under $60.
Will I be back: For the awesome, if exorbitantly pricey, raviolo.
Lincoln is at 142 W. 65th St. Information: +1-212-359-6500 or http://www.lincolnristorante.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)