LINCOLN Ristorante: First Taste & Mario Batali

Dear Food Diary:
Walking by the newly renovated Lincoln Center, you’ll be delighted with illuminated steps, an outdoor seating under rows of well manicured trees and the new culinary child of the Patina Restaurant Group LINCOLN.
Entering the LINCOLN was like going to the Apple Store, only much warmer, quieter and opulent. As if the architect of the 5th Ave. Apple Store married some chic boutique designer from Aspen, who just happened to have grown up in a NYC penthouse.
Open, airy, elegant, modern, chic… in short, simply sexy. Someone wrote a piece pre-opening that I loved, can’t remember where I read it, but it said “If Woody Allen was to make the movie Manhattan today, a scene would surely be set here“.

The space isn’t the only thing impressive about this new addition to the West side. Their sleek open kitchen is fully staffed under Chef Jonathan Benno, who’s culinary sensei happens to be none other than Thomas Keller himself. Benno has worked at an spectacular list of establishments including The French Laundry, Per Se, Daniel, Gramercy Tavern, Aqua and Craft. He credits Keller for influencing his philosophy on food and dining, the which he’s brought to the East Coast. With that kind of resume, who could blame Chubby Chinese Boy (CCB) and I for setting our tastepectations higher than usual. After all, we weren’t the only ones. We heard Clinton, Bruce Willis, mayor Bloomberg amongst others have graced them with their empty tummies already.
Our biggest surprised arrived shortly after us. Chef Mario Batali and company sat a couple tables down. I tried real hard not to stare and contemplated about picture taking, but I just had to do it for the sake of you guys and blogging. I mean, a famous Italiano Chef, with a handful of well respected Italian restaurants in town wants more Italian food when he’s out to dinner? I mentioned this to one of the gentlemen working there and he counted this as Batali’s 3rd visit. Also that the chefs are friends, and Benno’s wife works at Eataly, what a small and yummy island this is! Well, if it’s good enough for Mario, it’s gotta be good enough for this Chubby. My excitement went up a notch, and this was only after flat water.
It was surprisingly empty on a Friday night around 7:30pm, but I didn’t mind, I prefer less crowded.
Their menu changes daily and is dated as you can see on the left corner. We were looking forward to a Tasting Menu of some sort, but unfortunately it wasn’t offered that night, however, the chef was willing to put one together just for us, but after hearing the selection, we decided to sample what was offered and do our own sampling.
Our Italian candlelight affair began with a bottle of Kerner Abbazia di Novacella 2009. Buon appetito!
The modernly structured “bread” tower attracted our immediate attention when the words pork fat were mentioned. The first 3 pieces, Crisps brushed with Pork Fat and dusted with Parmigiano Reggiano, ohhhhhhh what on earth, this was amazingly crunchy, made my fingers oily in the most worth it way possible, a little salty and intense piggy flavor. I wanted more of these and forget about the bottom 3 pieces of bland Sesame Crisps. The Red Pepper Flake Bread Sticks were crunchy with a slight kick, not bad, but can’t we dipped those in pork fat too? Anyone?
First amuse bouche were these Chickpea Croquettes with a stewed eggplant puree. The texture was a little odd, almost like a fried rice cake but grainier. The dip didn’t help either.
Our second complimentary bite from the kitchen was a beautiful Tuna Crudo.Fresh piece of thinly sliced tuna, sitting on top of a avocado mixture, with a nice bright lemon and parsley puree on the side. Nothing new or specially exciting, but solid flavors nevertheless and I was smiling, a good piece of crudo always gets my bouche’s attenzione.

Now to the “sampling menu” we put together ourselves…
DI STEFANO BURRATA fall squash, walnuts, watercress made us speechless. It was like fall on a plate, the sweet squash is respectfully cooked perfectly tender with love and butter, sprinkled with cinnamon. The cheese is soft and ohhh sooo creamy, with a stretchy pull like that of good fresh mozzarella. Watercress gave every forkfull a bit of crunch and bright bitterness. Just a divine mix of flavors and textures that made my tongue want to sing. Sinful pleasure on a plate. We shared, but I could of easily had it all to myself. One of my favorites of the night.
TERRINA DI FEGATO GRASSO, CONIGLIO E ANIMELLE foie gras, rabbit and sweetbread terrine, seckel pears, lettuce were my least favorite bites of the evening. The foie was fine, so was the meaty rabbit chunk, but I don’t seem to enjoy sweetbread unless it’s grilled and has a chard coating. The way this was prepared basically gave it the texture of a cold piece of fat, which then between every bite, you had sweet pear pieces on the side. And the lettuce just sat there, lonely.

We shared 2 pastas, which were split for us before hand and brought in these duo plates.
CAVATELLI CON VONGOLE razor clams, peppers, lemon thyme was a perfect example of al dente pasta. It had a nice bite and chew to it, resistant yet giving. The razor clams were tender with enough toothsomeness in texture, which is why I love clams in the first place. Subtle oceany hints were interlaced with a citrusy thyme base. While the peppers played a chard and sweet role in the mix. No doubt my favorite of the two pastas and a dish I would go back for.
RIGATI CON GRANSEOLA dungeness crab, pacific sea urchin, peperoncino, sea beans was what I looked forward to the most, due to my deep love affair for anything sea urchin, but this one fell short. The pasta was fine, the crab lumps sweet, and the sea urchin was there, but even with all that, it lacked flavor and that extra oomphs. My favorite part was surprisingly the sea beans that broke the creaminess and gave it that fresh crunch and much needed salt. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I’ve had a far superior version a couple months ago at MAREA and maybe even Basta Pasta.

BRODETOO DI PESCE red snapper, shrimp, fregula. shellfish broth had intense flavors and a great use of each ingredient, though a tad bit salty. The red snapper was cooked to perfection, a crisp golden brown skin with a moist flesh. The shrimp was carefully prepared, with the head intact, which I think it’s the best and only way to enjoy shrimp. But the real star of this dish was the shellfish broth, that each round fregula (type of pasta from Sardinia, similar to couscous, made with semolina dough) ball had absorbed. The fregula was a little hard, but I guess it was necessary to withstand the strong broth. The shellfish must of been sitting in the pot for hours in order to achieve this level of concentrated flavor. I’m guessing the heads of these shellfish and everything good within were also present and tastefully put to use. So very luscious and delightful bite after bite. 

PORK CHOP SPECIAL saute spinach, shiitake mushrooms, polenta was honestly disappointing. Specially with their prices. The pork chop was super dry. You know the dish needs help when you’re enjoying the sides better than the main protein. The savory sauce, sort of like a lighter, fancier and more sophisticated gravy was delicious along the creamy polenta and fragrant mushrooms. But even with the well seasoned sauce, the chop was a lost cause. 

MONTE BIANCO buttermilk gelato, chestnut sorbetto, tortino di ciccolato, panna montata alla grappa e cioccolato was a decadently sweet finish. Dark chocolate dome that melted in my mouth along with gelato and sorbet in one bite, while a buttery crust brought the right crunch. Bites of chestnut, chocolate cake and cream completed the plate without being a sugar overload, while adding good texture and classic flavors. 

SORBETTI concord grape was a surprise complimentary addition to our prolonged dolce finale. While ordering dessert I had asked about it, since I heard how wonderful it was from the table next to us, but we were too full for 2 desserts and the Monte Bianco just sounded more exciting. I didn’t know that while I was at the ladies room, CCB had told the waiter about this blog, so he went ahead and brought the deep purple sorbet over crumbled amaretto cookies anyways. I was afraid it would taste too much like Welch’s, but instead it tasted like real grapes, not too concentrate, fresh and light. The smoothness of the sorbetti was thoughtfully interrupted by the bits of the almond flavored cookies. It was good, but not spectacular to the point I would spend $12. 

Another plate of little sweet samples arrived shortly after. I was much too full to enjoy them, but gave each a try. Nothing really stood out amongst the fruit jam or chocolate sandwich cookies, the pistachio, almond and meringue. I would of loved a couple good pieces of dark chocolate to go with my chamomile tea instead. 

I enjoyed my night with CCB overall, but wasn’t particularly wowed by anything on my plate. The space both indoors and out certainly took my breath away and the service was specially attentive (I counted more staff than diners). I overheard Mario Batali and someone from the restaurant talk about how reservations would come with time (something along those lines). Well, to me, prices were on the high side, while the dishes weren’t quite hitting the mark just yet. I’m hoping with time they’ll figure it out and stay for the long run. Otherwise it would really be a waste of this beautiful space.

P.S. Chubby’s RATING: 1/2
Lincoln Center
142 West 65th St.
Lincoln on Urbanspoon