Entries in Jonathan Benno (4)


Lincoln Ristorante

I’ve dined at Lincoln Ristorante several times since it opened a year ago. It is not my favorite Lincoln Center restaurant, but it is certainly the most convenient, and it is very good.

I just wish I liked it better. I want to like it better. People I respect like it better. But it usually leaves me wanting more.

Lincoln opened with the proverbial thud, getting lukewarm reviews from most of the city’s critics. I had a long list of complaints in my original review, and I stand by most of them. Lincoln is too corporate: it screams of design by committee. The room and the building are unattractive. These things are unfixable.

What Chef Jonathan Benno and Restaurant Director Paolo Novello have done, is to fix what they can. Lincoln is not bargain dining, but prices now are a shade lower. An expensive tasting menu and an absurd $130 ribeye are no longer offered. Portion sizes, which for some dishes were insultingly small, have been increased.

Benno has found his inside voice. Though I am not fond of the open kitchen, at least you no longer hear a drill sergeant commanding the Normandy invasion. We sat right next to the glass partition at dinner a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t think we heard him once. What a relief!

Service, which was already excellent, has continued to improve. The staff know they need to get you to your show on time—all of my visits have been pre-concert or pre-opera—and they do it well, without ever seeming to be in a rush. Ask about any item, and a clear, patient, encyclopedic explanation will follow.

On the current menu, antipasti are $17–25, pastas $20–28, entrées $30–45, side dishes $10–15, and desserts $10–12. A traditional four-course Italian meal will thus set you back around $90 to $100 a head before wine, but I seldom eat that much before a show, and I am probably not alone. Indeed, the staff actively suggest that pasta dishes be ordered as mains or in half-portions.

We shared the Reginette Verdi al Ragú Bolognese ($24; above left), which the kitchen divided and served in separate bowls. This was one of the more enjoyable pastas I’ve had in quite a while. The reginette is a fascinating noodle, shaped like a long, thin, green zipper. The ragú was a rich mix of veal, pork, and beef, topped with just the right kick from parmigiano-reggiano.

But Halibut ($36; above right) was on the dry side. It was served over excessively salty lentils baked in chicken stock and pig trotters, but I couldn’t taste those ingredients. This seems to be my fate at Lincoln, where the wonderful dishes are offset by the less successful ones.

With the petits fours (right) there’s no argument. They may not be the fanciest, but they are more than sufficient.

So that’s the status of Lincoln circa late 2011. The professional reviews have started to improve. Esquire’s John Marianai called it one of the best new restaurants of the year. Gael Greene in Crain’s recently gave it “three hats” out of four, noting, “It is thrilling to watch a shy, insecure adolescent grow into a magnetic, irresistible beauty.”

But even allowing a year for Lincoln to improve, the Post’s Steve Cuozzo could only give it two stars recently, just slightly better than his 1½ stars a year ago.

I’m with Cuozzo. I very much want to like it better, but still cannot.

Lincoln (142 West 65th Street at Lincoln Center)

Food: **
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: **



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Lincoln Ristorante.

Restaurants attached to performing arts centers, much like those attached to airports, don’t have the best reputations.

Why, then, did Jonathan Benno, the former chef de cuisine at Per Se, attach himself to the corporately-named Lincoln, owned and run by specialists in mediocrity, the Patina Restaurant Group?

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)

Food: **
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: **


Per Se

My girlfriend and I had dinner at Per Se a few weeks ago for her birthday—my third visit to the restaurant, her first. (For an earlier review, click here.) We found Per Se still firing on all cylinders. When I alerted the staff that this was a birthday celebration, all I expected was a cake at dessert, but we got several additional freebies beyond that.

We ordered champagne to begin, which was no bargain at $25 per glass, but they refilled us something like three times apiece, by which time it was quite the bargain, and it also meant we were feeling no pain before we got into the bulk of our meal.

Amuse-bouche: Salmon cones and gougères

They asked if we’d like a kitchen tour before the meal—we could have had the tour afterwards (which is more the norm), but by then the service would have been mostly over with, and our server suggested it would be more interesting to see while the chefs were still working. We were impressed at the enormous expanse of the place. It’s the only restaurant I’ve seen with more room behind-the-scenes than in the dining room. We also saw the much-rumored live video link with The French Laundry. Everything was, of course, impeccably clean. As my girlfriend so often points out, the cleanest kitchens usually produce the best food.

Dinner at Per Se is nine-courses prix fixe at $250—either the Chef’s Tasting Menu or the Tasting of Vegetables. Several of the courses do have choices, but you’re on the hook for at least $250 (including service) regardless. The recommended wine pairing is $175, though there is some flexibility below that amount if you ask for it. Unlike many other restaurants, there is no “standard” wine pairing at Per Se; the sommelier customizes a wine pairing based on your requests and budget.

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This wasn’t an evening for note-taking, and in any case we were plenty inebriated by the time most of the food came, so I’ve structured this post as a photo-essay with light comments, beginning with day’s menus (above): the Chef’s Tasting Menu (left) and the Tasting of Vegetables (right).

“Oysters and Pearls” (left); Truffle Custard (right)

The menus at Per Se change daily, but a few things are constant. The Salmon Cones are always the amuse-bouch, and the first course is always “Oysters and Pearls” with caviar. Both have been well described by others, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. After that, the kitchen sent out an extra course: a “truffle custard” in a hollowed-out egg, which was outstanding—probably the highlight of the evening.

Hudson valley moulard Duck Foie Gras “Gâteau” (left); Grilled “Pavé of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (right)

On the Chef’s Tasting Menu, the second course always offers an option of foie gras ($30 supplement). In my three visits, it has never been done the same way, and this preparation might have been the best yet. The menu described it as a Foile Gras “Gâteau, with peanut butter and grape geléee. The server called it “our version of peanut butter & jelly.” I can’t imagine anything better.

The first entrée (tuna) came next; see photo, above right. 

Soft Boiled Squire Hill Farm’s Aracana Hen Egg (left); Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster (right)

The next course on the Chef’s Tasting Menu is traditionally lobster. It’s the one item that many diners find unexciting. I’d already had it twice, so I asked for a substitution from the Vegetable menu. I got the Soft-Boiled Hen Egg with mushrooms, which was wonderful. My girlfriend had no complaints about the lobster, but I still think it suffers in such a miniscule presentation.

All Day Braised Hobbs Shore’s Pork Belly (left); Elysian Fields Farm’s “Selle D’Agneau Rôtie Entière (right)

Braised pork belly (above, left) is always a dependable dish in these settings. I believe I was a bit more fond of the lamb (above, right) than my girlfriend was. For the record, the alternative was a Wagyu beef, carrying a $100 supplement.

Desserts follow, without comment:

Cheese courses: Meadow Creek Grayson (left); Tarentais (right)


Yogurt Sorbet with Carrot Cake (left); Finally, birthday cake (right)


Crème brulée (left); Granny Smith Apple Consommé with Ginger Ice Cream (right)

 The staff seemed totally at ease with the fact that we were making a photo-document of our meal. After a while, they started leaving the wine bottles on our table so that we could photograph the labels, of which a few are shown below. We especially loved the 1962 Madeira, which was served with one of the dessert courses:


Service throughout was as polished and professional as one would expect at such a restaurant. We left with the sense that we had experienced the best meal this city has to offer.

Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, Fourth Floor, West Midtown)

Food: Luxurious American cuisine with high-end French influence and technique
Service: As elegant as you’ll find in New York
Ambiance: A quiet, spacious room, overlooking Central Park

Rating: Extraordinary


Per Se

After admiring Per Se from a distance for the last two years, I finally had dinner there on Wednesday evening with two colleagues and a vendor, who was paying.

I was first to arrive. Three hosts stood guard at the door to ask which party I was with. They were as friendly as could be, but their purpose was plain enough: curiosity-seekers who just want to come in and have a look aren’t welcome. They took my coat without providing a claim check; when we were ready to leave, they had our coats in hand, without even having to ask who we were. Alain Ducasse and Gilt are the only other restaurants where I’ve experienced such efficiency.

As I was early, I relaxed in the comfortable lounge and ordered a cocktail. My colleagues arrived a short while later, and we were ushered into the elegant main dining room. Some people find the Adam Tihany-designed space a little chilly, but its warm elegance grew on me. The view across Columbus Circle and Central Park’s southwest corner is wonderful at night.

Your choices at Per Se are simple: the seven-course tasting menu, the nine-course chef’s tasting menu, or the vegetable tasting—all at $210 (service included). The seven-course tasting offers a couple of options, the nine-course tasting just one option (foie gras or salad), the vegetable tasting none at all. So, while these menus do change frequently, on any given evening the kitchen’s life is a lot more predictable than at other luxury restaurants.

I was not surprised that all of us selected the chef’s tasting menu with the foie gras option ($30 supplement). The printed menu offered a foie gras terrine, but our server told us that we could substitute seared foie gras if we preferred, which two of us did. After our host selected bottled water and a red wine, we were done making decisions, and it was time for the parade of food.

At Per Se, people walk in every day asking to see a copy of the menu. At some point, the management obviously got tired of this, so they erected a stand outside of the main entrance, where copies of the three menus are there for the taking. Nowadays, curiosity-seekers need not enter Per Se’s hallowed doors just to get a copy of the menu. I had meant to take an extra copy as I left, as a memento of the evening. When I got home, I realized I’d taken a copy of the vegetable tasting menu instead. (That’s how tired I was.) So unfortunately, I don’t have a complete record of everything we had.

As it has been from the day Per Se opened, the amuse bouche was the salmon cone, and the first course was “oysters and pearls” (pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar). It’s no surprise that Per Se keeps serving these dishes, as they are superb. Meanwhile, we were offered a choice of house-made breads, along with two butters that come from a farm with just five cows that sells only to Per Se and the French Laundry.

Although foie gras is a standard second course at Per Se, it has been offered in a variety of preparations. As I mentioned above, I chose the seared foie gras, which came in a large portion that melted in the mouth. Greater perfection could not be imagined.

Third was a fish course that was very good, but I have forgotten what it was. Then came the lobster cuit sous vide that some people have found underwhelming. I had no such complaints with the preparation, but it was awkward to cut into pieces with the fish knives we were given. Serrated knives would have been the way to go.

Next came duck breast, which I found mildly uninteresting for a restaurant of this calibre. Calotte de boeuf grillée (basically a slice of ribeye steak) was beautifully done.

The cheese and dessert courses were excellent, although I have forgotten the details. We concluded with the house-made mignardises, of which I could have had many more. We were sent home with a cellophane bag of cookies. (The coffee cake that Compass leaves you with is better.)

At Alain Ducasse, which I also visited recently, I had two courses that were absolutely transcendent, and which I will remember for a long time to come: the blue foot chicken and the “baba” rum dessert. Only one dish at Per Se reached this level — the “oysters and pearls,” which was gone in about sixty seconds (it was only a taste). If Per Se deserves four stars, it is for sustained excellence over the course of such a long menu, rather than for a particular extraordinary dish.

The service was, of course, at the highest level—seamless, polished, and expert.

Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, in the Time-Warner Center, 4th floor)

Food: ****
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****

Overall: ****