The Lincoln


The New York Times just printed a snarky review of The Lincoln, Jonathan Benno’s (formerly the chef at Per Se) wonderful new Italian restaurant right on the Lincoln Center campus. 


I fear I must disagree with its author, Sam Sifton, on almost every count—save the fact that I essentially agree that “Mr. Benno can cook,” and that “His work makes it possible to eat well at Lincoln and, as at Per Se, to savor some bites as if they were sonnets.”  It is quite striking that the review’s conclusions are so negative given how much the reviewer repeatedly waxes rhapsodic about the restaurant’s food:


Mr. Benno’s cavatelli con vongole, for instance — which brings the rolled pasta into a warm bowl with soft razor clams and sweet peppers the same length and breadth as the pasta itself, with a little lemon thyme and a lot of butter — is a silky, luscious delight, the product of an exacting mind dedicated to sensual pleasures.


Mr. Benno’s cod in prosciutto brodo is intense, a salty-sweet combination that lingers on the tongue. He coaxes immense flavor out of a veal chop, and pairs it with Roman-style gnocchi tight with cheese, sweet carrots and nutty chanterelles. His tasting menu recently featured a dish of malloreddus, the Sardinian ridged pasta, served with egg, parsley, lemon and a whole bunch of mosciame — tuna prosciutto, essentially. It was shockingly flavorful.


On and on—and the tenor of the review’s positive comments on the food remains constant.  They are just not the kind of descriptions you expect to precede a negative conclusion.


We have had three great meals at The Lincoln since it opened at the end of September, and each experience was progressively better than the one beofred.


Our first visit was exactly two weeks after it opened.   Chef Benno’s Italian menu was at once inventive and familiarly satisfying.  The main standouts were the agnolotti appetizer in an intense, braised veal reduction, and the cotoletta di vitello (veal chop main course) with gnocco alla Romana and chanterelles mushrooms and the bistecca for two;  everything was good, and many things were extraordinary—although the cooking was not totally uniform in its excellence.  The breads were all a special treat (I am not a focaccia lover, but theirs was irresistible); and even their specially filtered, in-house carbonated sparkling water was the perfect accompaniment for the fine food.  But the big surprise was the excellent wine list.  Not only are the well-respected and well-known wines of Italy represented on this extensive list, there is also an impressive selection of wonderful, lesser-known and lower-priced entries that show an unusual eye in their selection…and a couple of rather special, but rather unusual choices—the most immediately striking to me being the extraordinary, complex (and huge) Taurasi Riserva from Mastroberardino—and a 1999, no less!  This is not a wine one often finds in restaurants.  In fact, the only place I had seen it in decades was for a short time at Telepan on the Upper West Side, and it was around that wine I had made friends with the sommelier there, who was almost as excited to find someone who knew and enjoyed this wine as I was to find someone who had put it on his wine list.  Having ordered a bottle of this great wine from the waiter, the sommelier from The Lincoln came over to our table in response to speak with us about it.  I looked at him, and said, “Aaron?”; and he replied, “Dr. Rubens?”  It was Aaron Von Rock—the gifted young sommelier who had been at Telepan and is now directing the wines at The Lincoln.


By our second visit two weeks later, however, much had changed:  Chef Benno had worked out every last tiny kink that had lent a certain unevenness to the cooking on our first visit:  everything every one of us ate was uniformly divine!  It was as if the place needed the extra few days fully to get up to speed, and now it was truly soaring!  And wonderful new dishes had been added to the already wonderful menu:  I had Benno’s intensely flavorful spaghetti alle sarde (with the most tasty, slightly crunchy sardines, in a tomato, caper, and olive sauce), followed by a grilled lamb loin that was quite sublime.  Every dish that every one of the four of us ate was superb.  And the service, already friendly and efficient from our first visit, was even more polished and relaxed, in an elegant fashion.


We had such a magnificent experience, that we returned two weeks later for yet a third dinner.  This was every bit as wonderful as the second had been, with one extremely noteworthy addition:  there was now a tajarin al tarufo bianco d’Alba.  Tajarin is a pasta quite similar to a thinner version of tagliatelle, from the Langhe region of Piemonte. And the delicate, lightly creamy parmigiano sauce, sett off against the wonderfully intense, aromatic fresh white truffles, made for what is quite simply the best white truffle dish I have ever tasted—and I have tasted far more than my relatively meager means should allow me to!  This dish alone would have warranted the visit to The Lincoln that night—but, naturally, it was accompanied by other sublime experiences that supported the intensity of the initial thrill of the tartufi bianchi.  [click here to view the current menu]  Moreover, there as a new addition to the wine list:  Aaron has now included multi-year collections of several wonderful wines, including the Taurasi Riserva from Mastroberardino in vintages from ’97-’01, Prunotto Barolo “Busia from ’94-05, and the elegant, but tough to afford Ornellaia (one of our two favorites of the great Super Tuscan blends) from ’01-’07.  [click here to view the current wine list]  The Lincoln was now firmly established in my mind as a star in my culinary firmament.


Now, while I am obviously more totally enthralled by the food at The Lincoln than the NY Times reviewer was, he clearly appreciated its excellence as well.  It is on everything else that he and I completely part company in our evaluations.  To start with, for whatever reasons, the reviewer seemed not to like the space the restaurant occupies.  We, on the other hand, were Image Gallerycompletely in awe of the beauty of this restaurant!


 It is on the newly renovated 65th Street end of the Lincoln Center Campus, directly adjacent to the beautiful reflecting pool (with its Henry Moore sculpture, and a grove of trees on its far side) in front of Lincoln Center Theater, north of the Met and west of Avery Fisher Hall, sitting atop the new, still-under-construction, Film Center being built for the Film Society.  It is a strikingly graceful roofdesign by Liz Diller (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro; she is also responsibly for the wonderful, newly re-designed Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall building, visible from the east end of the restaurant on the opposite side of 65th Street), completely filling the space from the plaza level to the twisting, undulating upward “hyperbolic paraboloid” sweep of the 7,200 square-foot grass lawn covered roof.  It is a breath-takingly beautiful form, and it creates an unusually sumptuous and captivating interior space for the restaurant.  There is a concept in Japanese architectural design called the “stolen garden,” which refers to the way an architectural construction can actually make use of the pre-existing buildings and other features around it and incorporate them into the experience it creates for itself (a great example of this in Western architecture is the way Mies van der Rohe captured the surrounding space in his Federal Center complex in Chicago); and Liz Diller’s building has created a “stolen garden” in the experience she has created for dinners at The Lincoln:  depending on where one is sitting, different aspects of the Lincoln Center world become a part of the experience of being there—and perhaps the most exquisite is the experience of looking out from the end of the restaurant where the roof soars to its maximum height onto the reflecting pool and the plaza enclosed by Avery Fisher, the Met, and Lincoln Center Theater, which become one of the most perfect gardens one ever could hope to steal!  It has a beauty and a dramatic life that makes me particularly unable to comprehend the fact that the space failed to work for the Times reviewer.


The room itself is a vast, glass-enclosed, open pavilion.  As with her building for Alice Tully Hall, Diller has created here a space that is human and warm while at the same time being starkly and excitingly modern.  The clean glass room is filled with luxuriously widely-spaced black tables, with heavy—but extraordinarily comfortable—off-white leather swiveling arm chairs.  The floors appear to be made of the same travertine as the buildings of the Lincoln Center campus, except that they are, in actuality, soft, warm, rich carpet woven in a design to simulate the look of that stone.  The wood trim is a deep, rich red mahogany, as is the entire underside sweep of the ceiling, which follows exactly the gorgeous line of Diller’s roof immediately above it.  All this adds a warmth and profound depth to the contrasting linear surfaces of the room.  At night, the warm reddish glow of the restaurant seems to flow welcomingly outward onto the plaza.  At the western, sharply-vertically-contained end of the space, the feel is dramatically different:  there, particularly in the cozy round booths nestled into the warm more wood-enclosed lowest part of the space, one feels the tremendous upward and outward swoop of the roof rising to create space and light in the direction of one’s line of vision—it is a thrillingly Image Galleryexperience, balancing calm stability and energetic motion.   How the reviewer failed to feel the separate experiences of the different sections of The Lincoln is quite beyond me—as is his inability to grasp the unifying aspects of that richly varied experience.  For whatever reason, he also did not like the fact that Benno’s gorgeous kitchen is centrally located within the dining space, fully open to view, but set off behind floor-ceiling glass walls.  I, for one, often beg, plead, and cajole to be allowed a peek at the kitchens of great restaurants.  (I felt honored to be granted admittance to the holy of holies at Per Se—much as we had at The French Laundry.)   I find the access to the kitchen at The Lincoln quite perfect:  it is there as a focus, should you be interested it having it be so, while it is actually quite unobtrusive and can be completely tuned out if that is one’s preference.  But this kichen is a marvelous operation—well-laid out, and elegantly managed.


The service at The Lincoln is efficient, friendly, and responsive.  On our first visit, during the NY Film Festival, we had a time restriction, and the staff accommodated us by having us ready to go exactly when we had requested.  The other two visits were unrestricted as to time, and we comfortably were allowed to linger endlessly at an entirely different pace.  Everything from the welcome at the entrance, to getting our coats upon departing was done with seamless efficiency and warm congeniality.  Everything about the operation is run with amazing professionalism—friendly and warm, yet fast and accurate; proper and stylish, yet relaxed and comfortable—which I assume must be the effect of the incredibly competent gentleman who is the general manager of The Lincoln, Paolo Novello.  Sig. Novello, who hails from Turino, has a long and distinguished career managing restaurants in Italy, London, Tokyo, and, since 2003, as part of Thomas Keller’s team at the French Laundry and later Per Se. 


Elegant is a word that has repeatedly come to my mind in thinking about The Lincoln.  Every detail is elegant: the Patina group and Jonathan Benno extensively planned every element, and they spared no expense in bringing their plans to fruition.  (The figure $20 million is quoted as having been the price tag for this space, and the quality of the detailing seems to verify its magnitude.)  The space is elegant, the service is elegant, and the food and wine are elegant.  To be clear:  it is not overly formal.  This elegance is a quiet, comfortable elegance.  I, for one, think it is an incredible addition to Lincoln Center.


If there is one criticism that the Times raises that has some legitimacy, it is that The Lincoln is expensive.  It is.  But it is worth it…it is as simple as that.  (And know for a certainty:  there are any number of restaurants in New York that are more expensive, and far less good.)


Go try The Lincoln for yourself…you will be happy you did!


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