It's been hard to ignore only the Most Significant Restaurant Opening in New York so far this year.
Since Jonathan Benno announced he would be leaving Per Se for Lincoln, an upscale Italian restaurant the Patina Restaurant Group was opening at Lincoln Center, the stories and blog items have been unceasing. Weeks before the restaurant opened late last month, the city's food Web sites were already aflutter with anticipation. Just days after it opened, food blogs were filled with photos of its eggplant parmesans and breathless accounts of transcendent meals there.
It's difficult to live up to such hype, but Benno, his crew and the beautifully sculpted setting, complete with a modern glass-walled kitchen in the heart of it all, they do it in spades.
Let's start with the dining room — a gorgeous, modern creation that is stunning in its unfussiness. The restaurant, which took a cool $20 million to create, looks like a living wing of the Museum of Modern Art.
While I thought the main dining room was lovely, …
… I especially liked the view that the other side offered. On a sunny weekend, this would be perfect for a spot of brunch and people watching.
In the middle of the dining room is a glass cage of a kitchen, with Benno at the center of it all, calmly bustling about for most of the dinner service.
This is a welcome change from Per Se, where the kitchen is gorgeous but unfolds over a warren of hidden rooms. It's wonderful to watch Benno and his crew at work — as entertainment value goes, it might even rival what's on stage at Lincoln Center on some nights.
Not long after we were seated, artfully presented crackers appeared — all of this is housemade by pastry chef Richard Capizzi, who has worked with Benno for a long time. Some come flecked with olive oil, parsley, oregano and sesame seeds.
What I couldn't get enough of, however, was the schiacciata, a flat crisp coated with a glistening sheen of melted pork fat and parmesan. It was a paper-thin, salty and intense — and, sadly, disappeared in a flash.
The amuses bouche were a delight — green olives stuffed with pork sausages, lightly breaded and fried, and risotto balls.
Benno, who did French-inflected food at Per Se and French Laundry before that, has said that his new menu is close to his heart: “This is my interpretation of classical Italian cuisine, the food that I knew in my heart I wanted to cook."
We began with the sea scallops, sunchokes, almonds and sunflower oil ($24) — the scallop was nicely done with a crisp char what was done perfectly.
Now, just before our visit to Lincoln, dessert chef Pichet Ong had told my chef friend Simpson that he had thought the tuna appetizer that Benno put out was sublime. Naturally, Simpson had to order it: Atlantic big-eye tuna with Castelvetrano olives, radishes, lemon and parsley ($22).
Pichet was right — this was a delicious. The accoutrements were lovely but the tuna was so fresh it didn't really need anything else, although it did taste great with a crisp sliver of radish.
The burrata appetizer ($18) had been highly recommended by Jared the waiter, who gave us a schpiel about Di Stefano, an artisanal cheesemaker in Southern California, which only makes burrata and does so with cream from Italy.
Jared wasn't overselling it — the burrata was one of the best I've had. The deep, slightly salty creaminess of it was especially great paired with crisp celery, cucumber and greenmarket tomatoes. I would eat this every day if I could.
The foie gras, rabbit and sweetbread terrine with seckel pears and lettuce ($28) had sounded like a must — and we certainly didn't regret ordering it. The terrine was amazing — each creamy bite a lovely blend of flavors. It's seriously worth coming back to Lincoln just for this and the burrata.
The pastas had been a focus of the whirlwind of hype — it's all made with a $3,500 machine by Emilio Miti that chef Michael White himself uses in Marea, had described as the "cadillac of machines" and recommended to Benno.
So naturally, we ordered two rounds of pasta as a primi for the table.
We were pleasantly surprised when they arrived in TV dinner-esque (or dog bowl-like, depending on your perspective) bowls, already split up. (Very thoughtful of the kitchen to limit the amount of passing.)
We hadn't been able to persuade the table to order the lasagne verdi alla bolognese that are individually made in circular pans but we did try the rigati with dungeness crab, sea beans, peperoncino and sea urchin ($28; on the right) and the braised lamb with cavolo nero and marjoram ($26; on the left).
The sea urchin was a great addition to a seafood pasta — but overall, we found both dishes a little bland and lacking in salt. (And this was coming from some folks at the table who don't generally use or like a lot of salt.)
In describing the entrees, Jared had gushed about the merluzzo, a combination of cod, pancetta, little neck clams and corn ($32).
"It's a menage a trois to remember," he had said.
To which, my friend, the fabulous Rachel, had immediately responded: "Is there any menage a trois that's not worth remembering?"
After that, one of us had to order the dish. Each item was lovely, fresh — but altogether, they seemed a little bland.
I suppose Rachel had encountered a menage she might not remember.
Mike, a great lover of pesto, had been salivating over the strozzapreti alla Genovese ($22) made with squash pesto, yellow squash and zucchini.
"It's OK," he said, only half-smiling.
Now, I've seen him suck down cheap pestos from a generic brand jar and sound more excited. The problem here seemed to be just a slight blandness.
Before we could get too disappointed with the entrees we'd had so far, however, the meats blew us away.
My veal chop ($42) was massive and incredibly juicy, tender and bursting with flavor. It had just the perfect amount of char on it and the chanterelle mushrooms and carrots accompanying it were delicious.
Pichet had also urged Simpson to order the lamb chop and shoulder, garlic sausage and cauliflower ($38) and this was truly wonderful. The lamb was perfectly cooked with slight pinkness and the sausage was delicious.
Now, this is a big plate — and you'll want to eat every bite of it. Perhaps the primis had not been such a good idea after all.
Before dessert showed up, there was a pause for tea, which allowed us to marvel at the beautiful presentation of sugars and artificial sweeteners.
The sbrisolona ($14), a crunchy Italian tart, had sounded enticing — it came with chocolate semifreddo, milk chocolate cream and banana-rum sorbetto with a few sliced caramelized bananas.
The sorbetto — also house-made — was delicious, as were the bananas and milk chocolate cream, but the sbrisolona was a little unexciting.
On the other hand, we could not get enough of the crostata di prugna ($14), a plum tart that was served warm with licorice root gelato, a smear of pluot jam, mascarpone zabaglione and a bed of chocolate pasta frolla, crumbly bits of chocolate shortbread that were incredibly addictive.
Each item on this plate was on its own, delicious — altogether, the combination was terrific.
The little tray of cookies offered to cap our meal, however, more than made up for the disappointing sbrisolona. Benno's versions of classic Italian cookies were delicious and very nicely done.
At an average of $120 a head (with wine), Lincoln isn't an inexpensive place to dine. But the magical setting, the intensity of some of its dishes, and the show that you'll get if you get a table right by the kitchen, it certainly can be worth the price of the ticket — depending on what you order.
Lincoln, 142 W. 65th Street, 212.359.6500, http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=131