Saturday, September 25, 2010

Lincoln: Opening Night at Benno's new Digs

Tonight was opening night (for civilians like me at least) at Lincoln, the new (Lincoln Center) restaurant from chef Jonathan Benno, formerly of Per Se.  I had seen this note about the opening of the reservations line so I decided to line one up for opening night, being a big fan of Per Se during Benno's tenure there.

I snagged a 9pm resy and had been looking forward to tonight since I got it.  I was not disappointed, as the dishes we got ranged from merely very good to really fantastic. We were seated right away when we arrived ten minutes early because the restaurant was less than half full due to deliberately holding back the number of reservations in the early goings. They mentioned they did only 70 covers tonight with an eventual target of over 200 (225?) for the 115 seat dining room. The menu (revealed below) was divided into Antipasti, Primi (pastas), and for Secondi a Pesce and a Carne section. In addition, there is a Piccoli Piatti which to my delight included the Melanzane Alla Parmigiana, the Eggplant Parm I had read was so good.  I was delighted of course because, being a small plate, I could order it as a side guilt free and not feel like I looked like a glutton.  Which of course I am, but that doesn't mean I enjoy looking like one.

I started with a cocktail, a selection from the "Negroni Bar", which allows you to construct your own variation by choosing the three ingredients, one each from a column of spirits (eg gin), a column of bitters (eg campari) , and one from a list of apertivos (eg Sweet Vermouth, or more specifically Carpano Antica).  I went with the traditional Gin, but then chose for the second two ingredients more obscure selections which I had never before tried, a Chinato for the bitter and a white apertif listed near the Lillet whose name eludes me at the moment.  The one hiccup in the service for the night was that my Negroni was delayed for some time, which was apparently due to me being the first to order something using the apertif so it had to be fetched from a basement somewhere.  The result was certainly one of the best of many negroni variations I've tried so I didn't mind.

Amoung our first bites were creamy saffron arancini with a molten cheese center and a delightfully salty fried olive stuffed with pork sausage. (Here is where I missed my negroni but it arrived shortly thereafter.) Now onto the real show.

I started with I think is my new favorite foie gras dish, perhaps my new favorite anything dish, the "Terrina di Fegato Grasso, Coniglio e Animelle", or Foie Gras, Rabbit and Sweetbread Terrine with Plums and Lettuces:
This was in fact the highlight of the night for me. It had luscious flavors and very pleasant contrasting textures including nicely crunchy large grains of salt. The sweetbread are in the layer at the bottom of the picture, the substantial foie was at the perfect temperature ready to melt in the middle, while I presume the rabbit is in the top layer. This was supremely executed, I can't remember the last dish I had I enjoyed as much. (Btw, how cool is it that the Italian (or spanish) word for sweetbreads is Animelle?)

My wife's first course was the Burrata with Heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, and celery. I didn't want to press my luck so I didn't get a picture, but it looked beautiful, and tasted very clean and pure.

We mostly stuck to the waiter's recommendations: the Terrine, Strozzapreti, Rigati, Melanzane, and Halibut.  I think the only one we didn't get was the scallop dish, which I'm sure would have been great, but the terrine came even more highly touted, and I had my heart set on it in any case. (My heart rarely steers me wrong.) In addition to his selections, we got the lasagna and the aforementioned burrata dish. We also got the braised roman beans, which were superfluous given everything else we ordered; not bad, but not memorable in comparison. In fact, the pastas looked so good between the two of us we got three pastas and only one secondi. Even though they said the pastas were smaller appetizer size portions, at the end we were stuffed and, as much as I'm sure I would have enjoyed digging into the Agnello, it would have been too much for us tonight.

On to our second course, and I apologize for some of the pictures which suffer because I was being quite, um...discreet. My wife got the Lasagne Verdi (recipe here!), which she was sold on as soon as I pointed out its sauce of besciamella. This was her favorite of the night, and my second place behind the terrine. For the lasagna I had to pay heed to my wife's progress to get my second bite before it disappeared, a ringing endorsement from her as I can usually count on finishing plenty of any given plate of her's.
I had the Strozzapreti with zucchini, yellow squash, and squash pesto, a nice dish to cap the last days of summer:
For our final course, I got the Rigati with crab, sea urchin, peperoncino, and sea beans.  This was a delightful dish, redolent of the sea:
And our sole secondi was the recommended halibut with pole beans, olives, baby artichokes, and acqua pazza (crazy water).  The fish was expertly cooked, firm but moist, slightly sweet flesh, with a proper crispy crust. The accouterments were just flavorful enough to not overpower the mild fish and provided some different textures and some slight acidity.
If you are curious, here's a sup-par pic of the Melanzane Alla Parmigiana, or Eggplant Parm:
It is the first eggplant parm I have not been sorely disappointed by, due to both the fact that it was really good and the fact that it didn't think I was getting veal parm only to end up with a soggy heap of nastiness.  Indeed, this was better than most veal parm's I've had, which is a BOLD statement coming from me.

After some exterior shots, as promised the menu for tonight:
With the exception of the terrine, which could proudly fit in, so far the menu does not rise to the level if Benno's cooking at per se, but I also don't think it intends to with its much lower price point and al a carte format catering to theater diners.  I'd compare it favorably to White's Marea, which I've only been to once, but was similarly excellent.  I'd have to sample both more times before I picked a winner.  There have been rumblings about whether Lincoln would be the first four star Italian in NY, as there were with Marea (which got three);  I'd say it's (obviously) too soon to tell.  The kitchen was operating smoothly on this first night, and who knows how ambitious a state the menu will evolve into in the coming weeks.  (nb I would not have been surprised if Marea had earned four stars.)  All I know is that I will be back and will look foreward to what is to come.

And here is the menu, with price points if you care; I might have thought twice about posting them, but I note they have already been outed from their secrecy so I figure it can't hurt to have them here as well.  I had meant to inquire, out of curiosity, if they were offering tasting menus tonight, but I forgot.  I assume they eventually will if they do not already.

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