Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lincoln and Levain Bakery, New York NY

The evening of 3/17 would place one of my favorite bands in a venue at the top of my “must visit” list – Interpol at Radio City Music Hall. Having seen the band 6 times but never in their home town at such a venue it was largely the concert that prompted me to make this particular trip to NYC in the first place. With an 8:00pm door time and an opening act that left me underwhelmed four days prior, however, a pre-concert meal was obviously in order and as such I decided to spend it with the man who crafted the best meal I’ve ever had in New York City, a 25+ course extended tasting that still resonates with me over a year later - Jonathan Benno.

With enough already made of Benno’s choice to leave Per Se (only 2 nights after my meal there) for Lincoln and the exorbitant cost involved in almost every aspect of Lincoln’s design I will only briefly touch on the space – a futuristic shard rising out of Lincoln Center – in a word the exterior is “striking.” Making a brief diversion prior to my 5:30 reservation (more on this later) I will also note that Lincoln Center was entirely abuzz on this particular day with an opera, a ballet, and the end of Fashion Week all coinciding with the day of my meal – given the lack of traffic cops for such a convergence of events I will simply note that my trip to the hostess stand was something akin to the video game Frogger.

Entering the lower lobby I was immediately greeted by a young woman who confirmed my reservation and checked my coat before leading me up the stairs. Greeted at yet another hostess stand by a team of three I was immediately struck by the dynamic of the dining room – long, dark, and left centered with the gleaming white of the kitchen to my right. With the room only a quarter full but soon to be at capacity with people waiting I was led promptly to a two-top in direct view of the kitchen and while I have to say I did not fancy the steel and cream leather “office chairs” filling the space, they certainly were comfortable and provided a degree of contrast to the sturdy black wooden tables.

Seated next to a lovely octogenarian solo diner who was due to meet her son-in-law at the opera we chatted briefly (and throughout the meal) before my server, an obvious veteran of the New York dining scene, Jeffrey would arrive with the menu, wine menu, and a clever sense of humor. Declining wine I first noted that the tasting menu had been truncated and lowered in cost – and as expected, the online menu was severely out of date with a restaurant that changes at least a portion of their options daily. Asking if parts of the tasting could be ordered a la carte I was informed that this would not be a problem at all and with little delay my order was placed.


Watching the kitchen move and listening to the light overhead concerto with occasional interruptions to chat with my neighbor I’ll note that while there is no doubt who is in charge of the kitchen, I only heard Chef Benno yell once during the 2:15 minute meal – otherwise the kitchen moved like a well polished machine. Service was friendly and conversational between myself and Jeffery while other tables dining as a group received less enthusiasm but equally in depth descriptions and suggestions. Ancillary service was hit or miss – while water remained filled throughout, empty plates often remained longer than one would expect – the longest remaining plates being the steel tray and tower combination bearing the now-signature opening volley of chili powder grissini and toasted flatbreads with lardo and sea salt – the grissini far too spicy for my Midwestern tongue but the flatbreads quite tasty.

Arriving next would be a collection of assorted Italian olives, fennel pollen taralli crackers, and crispy parcels of ricotta and spinach – each decent, none memorable.

For the nightly bread selection a collection of three warm and distinct flavors would arrive from the kitchen. All baked in house and served with a buttery and vegetal olive oil and cannellini bean and roasted garlic puree the choices of the day were foccaccia with melted lardo rosemary and black pepper, sesame 9-grain, and rustic Italian. With each bread offering something different I must admit that after a bite of the Italian and the nine-grain I remained with the foccaccia for the rest of the night – I mean, really, how can you argue with warm foccacia, pig fat, and rosemary – especially when topped with a smooth and garlicky compote?

My final amuse of the evening would be the best of the group and a substantial portion at that – tartar of big eye tuna with fennel, basil, and olive oil. While tuna tartar is clearly a played theme, this ceviche styled version all but melted on the tongue while and the vegetal ingredients acted in composition with the fish to highlight the sweeter tones of the protein.

Kicking off the menu proper, now approximately 50 minutes and ten different tastes into my meal, would be my request from the nightly tasting. For $24, Terrina Di Anguilla Affumicata E Fegato Grasso (Smoked Eel and Foie Gras Terrine, Bosc Pear, Sicilian Pistachios, Balsamico Gran Riserva Oro) would not disappoint. Weighing in at likely 1.5-2.0 ounces, the terrine itself was uniquely presented with the eel deboned, smoked, and packed into the unctuous liver – a remarkable taste and textural pairing that pleased the tongue and eye. Sitting alongside the terrie was a boozy pear tossed with grassy pistachios while a line of balsamic graced the front of the plate. While I’ll note that I generally prefer my terrines with a warm bread or toast, the dish was otherwise quite impressive and balanced.

Next moving into heavier dishes, my second selection was from the side dish section – in this case the daily gnocchi: Gnocchi di Patate Al Tartufo Nero. Listed at $25 but billed at only $14 (the normal daily price when the dish is served without truffles) this dish was the steal of the trip and every bit as good as the similarly fashioned gnocchi with black truffles that I remember from my extended tasting at the French Laundry. Perfect morsels of melting butter and potato, castelmagno cheese, and earthy aromatic truffles – after watching me enjoy each bite my neighbor opted to forgo dessert and order one of her own.

Course three would be another pairing of carb, cheese, and truffle – this time Speck e Polenta. Presented in a shallow bowl patterned precisely off of those at TFL and Per Se, the dish featured creamy Anson Mills White Polenta intermingling with Castelrosso cheese and chopped black truffles. Topping the dish off with four thin slices of uncured pork the flavors all balanced well and, as an additional surprise, the base of the bowl was layered with another thin layer of truffles.

For my final selection of the evening, a proper pasta – I just had to see if a $3,500 pasta machine was worth the hype. With three selections catching my eye this was the one course where I deferred to my server who offered up the Rigatoni as his favorite without a second thought. Noting to me that the portion sizes of the pastas had recently been increased and that I had ordered a lot of heavy food I assured him I would be okay, but when the dish arrived I had to admit I was surprised at the size – vastly larger than a pasta at Babbo, Del Posto, Marea, or Scarpetta. Titled Rigatoni Al Salsiccia Piccante the nicely prepared al dente tubes were matched with spicy Berkshire Pork Sausage, Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta, Fresh Basil, and a toss of mildly acidic tomato sauce. Simply done, rustic, and delicious even if perhaps a bit overpriced at $22.

At this point I was starting to get a little full but clearly dessert was a must. With Jeffery delivering the menu and strongly recommended the Spumone he began to describe the nightly sorbet selections to which my neighbor (who’d declined the sweets menu perhaps 10 minutes earlier) piped up and said “Are they as good as Grom?” Not understanding the question I explained to him what Grom was and that, in fact, they had just opened a new location just south of Columbus circle. With my order placed I additionally opted for a French Press of coffee – a $4.50 12oz of what I believe was Lavazza’s standard blend.

Returning next with a spoon for myself and one for my neighbor it appeared Jeffery had clearly taken it upon himself to let us decide whether the house sorbetti and gelati were “as good as Grom.” Presented with three flavors each – Mint Stracciatella, Oro Blanco Grapefruit, and Malted Milk for myself and Chocolate, Fennel, and Bosc Pear for my neighbor. With each scoop rested atop a complimentary crumble and topped with a thin crispy tuille I really cannot say whether the flavors were better than Grom, but they were all quite good and my neighbor definitely thought her Bosc Pear was Grom level.

Moving on to my proper dessert (and at this point quite full,) this dish would be the first less-than-excellent ordered course of the night largely because it wasn’t what I expected. Titled Budino All Averna E Cannolo Di Ricotta E Cioccolato, I rather expected a proper budino pudding, but what I received instead was a sort of hybrid dish featuring two chocolate shelled cannoli stuffed with ricotta and mascarpone and an dense chocolate ganache flanking candied kumquats. While bold and tasty with the chocolate nicely accented by the fruits I guess I just had anticipated something more akin to the glorious Budino of Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria – two of the best desserts I had in 2010.

Delivered along with the bill, the night’s selection of mignardises would include a Caramel Licorice, Sesame Biscotti, and Gianduja with Hazelnut. Not at all a fan of Licorice I was pleasantly surprised by the mildness in the caramels and actually favored it the most of the troika – but with that said, none were anything I couldn’t have done without. Settling the bill and requesting a copy of the menu, I was surprised when Jeffery offered me a brief tour of the kitchen where I got to chat with the chef a bit and he signed the menu without prompting – compared to my visit at Per Se he actually seemed much less rushed and intense than when I met him at Per Se – he even joked that the night prior Jerry Seinfeld had been in the house and made a comment that the kitchen was like a giant “chef tank.”

Making my way down the street I was once again struck by the criticism that Benno has gotten for Lincoln – prices too expensive, the room too impersonal, the portions too small – none of it seemed valid, though clearly changes have been made since the spot originally opened. While the experience is certainly not Per Se and the location certainly means different things to different people – a dining destination for some versus a pre-theater bite for others, I think the space is elegant and unstuffy, the food precise yet familiar, and the kitchen like nothing I’ve ever seen – my only suggestion would be to better focus the ancillary courses, but then again I’m not sure if Keller was serving the salmon cone and gougere every night at The French Laundry when it first opened.

Walking quickly with coat delivered from downstairs I made my way out to the street by 7:45 and found myself waiting in line at Radio City by 8:05 – perfect timing – yet for a moment a bit of worry. Noting the “no outside food or drink” sign I suddenly remembered my pre-meal diversion – Levain Bakery – and the nearly two pounds of (IE, two total) cookies in my pocket. With security thankfully wand based only the cookies survived – at least until 10:00pm.

Having admittedly taken a bite of each when they were delivered warm to my hand prior to entering Lincoln all I can say is that these are not those flimsy cookies your co-workers bring to the office party each December – these are more like a half-softball of butter, flour, sugar, and love. With one chocolate chip and one chocolate with peanut butter chip I cannot really say which was better, only that both were every bit worth the price, calories, and stomach capacity. Perhaps I’m a bit biased and perhaps a bit jaded by the experience, but all things being equal I’d have to say Levain Cookies + Radio City + Interpol is about as close to heaven as it gets.

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