Restaurants attached to performing arts centers, much like those attached to airports, don’t have the best reputations.
There was much navel-gazing as the owners debated what to call the place. “Benno” was a possibility, but what if the chef left? “Sud” (suggesting its Southern Italian emphasis) was considered, but diners might’ve thought it rhymed with “dud.” (The correct Italian pronunciation is more like “sood.”)
So they arrived at the generic “Lincoln,” which tells you where you are, but nothing about what you will eat. That name, like everything else at this restaurant, screams “compromise.” The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro built a spectacular glass-enclosed space with vistas onto the Lincoln Center performing campus, and a slanted lawn on the roof. The owners presumably got their wish: if Chef Benno moves on, another culinary concept could quickly be substituted without re-decorating.
The half-open kitchen is a severe blunder, inviting customers to dine on the shrill sound of Benno barking out orders at the pass. The lack of tablecloths doesn’t offend us, but we suspect it was yet another compromise, intended to make Lincoln seem more inviting to casual diners. But who exactly would those diners be, when the antipasti and pastas are mostly in the mid-to-high $20s, and entrées mostly in the mid-to-high $30s?
The question here is not whether Chef Benno can cook, but whether the concept makes sense as a restaurant. As presently conceived, I do not think it does. But there are some very smart people with a lot of money invested in this place, and I assume they will make adjustments.
My photo of the bread service didn’t come out, but it began with crackers slathered in pork fat and addictive bread sticks. Later, three different kinds of bread came out, along with soft butter and olive oil. The amuse bouche (below left) was an underwhelming deep-fried chickpea cake with eggplant dip.
We ordered the terrine of foie gras, rabbit, and sweetbreads to share ($28; above right), and the kitchen sent out two half-portions on separate plates. It’s a rich, deeply enjoyable starter.
The Lasagne Verde ($26; below left) appears on the menu without quotation marks, but perhaps it needs them. Made with veal, beef, pork, and a béchamel sauce, it’s a play on the traditional dish, rather than a faithful recreation, but extremely good in its way.
The current menu offers a white truffle pasta dish for $100. For that, they bring out the truffle on a silver platter and shave it tableside.
We got a junior-sized version of the dish with the kitchen’s compliments, as our entrée was taking a while. It may seem ingracious to complain about a dish served for free, but the gnocchi were leathery, and served in a pool of pedestrian veal jus. I wouldn’t be a happy man if I had paid for that.
There’s always a steak for two on the menu. Sometimes it’s ribeye ($130); on other days, its sirloin ($90). On Saturday, it was ribeye, presented at the table (above left), then whisked away to be sliced (above right).
While $130 isn’t too far above the going rate in New York for a premium aged prime ribeye for two, this wasn’t one of the better ones. There was no exterior char, and it lacked the deep, dry-aged flavor that steakhouses far less expensive than Lincoln have mastered. It came with a side order of potatoes (below left) and a perfunctory plate of greens.
We were too full for dessert, but the petits-fours (above) were a pretty good substitute, even if they weren’t a patch on what came out of the kitchen at Per Se—not that they should be.
Service was commensurate with the three-star rating Lincoln aspires to. Our reservation was at 8:00 p.m., around the time I expected Lincoln to be slowing down, on the assumption that most of its business comes from those attending concerts. It actually got busier after 8:00, so it is clearly not relying on the performing arts center.
The foie gras terrine and the lasagne demonstrated the potential of Lincoln’s kitchen; the gnocchi and the steak demonstrated that it still has a long way to go. I am sure that Chef Benno will do his damnedest to iron out the mistakes, but diners will be paying the freight while he does. Dinner for two, including a $60 bottle of wine, was $282 before tax and tip.
Lincoln (142 West 65th Street at Lincoln Center)