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October 19th, 2010 · No Comments

A year of planning. A $20-million renovation. A resume that boasts your time under Thomas Keller as Per Se’s chef de cuisine. There’s enough pressure and expectation to make Jonathan Benno leave the kitchen at Lincoln and run away with the Big Apple Circus.

Lincoln Center has much to offer – opera, theater, concerts, a showpiece fountain, and yes, the circus. This eclectic mix draws an equally eclectic swath of visitors – highfalutin Manhattanites, culture-seeking tourists, and those who just come to take in the scene. It’s difficult to be everything to everyone, and at Lincoln – Lincoln Center’s newest attraction – this tough position results in a few disconnects.

There aren’t tablecloths and there isn’t an antipasti under $20.

There are walk-ins wearing sneakers and jeans and diners with reservations decked in diamonds and heels. (Did I mention the meal will cost about $150 a person?)

There are those rushing through to make a show and others settling in for a night in which the meal IS the entertainment.

The space is spectacular. There’s a sloping lawn roof, a glassed-in kitchen, walls of windows, and leather swivel chairs.

The service is professional and charming. Though our team of servers appeared to be working out some kinks, they kept their issues to themselves. Benno has duplicated the all-accommodating, all-friendly, and nothing-pretentious-here service that I love at Per Se, but that’s where the parallels stop.

Benno abandons Keller’s French for upscale Italian, a focus that has people drawing lines to Michael White (poor Benno, can’t he just be Benno?). I disagree. White succeeds at innovation and the combination of unique flavors. Benno shines most when he’s keeping things simple and rustic.

The potato gnocchi were swoonworthy. The melt-in-your-mouth morsels tasted solely of spud and butter. The terrine of foie gras, rabbit and sweetbread was a taste trifecta. The honeycomb tripe should have Batali asking for the recipe. The burrata was as good as I’ve had, though the pairing with sweet and soft squash did nothing to accentuate the cheese’s creamy texture. A side of mixed mushrooms burst with earthiness. For dessert, a huckleberry tart was as delicious a it was humble. It left the chocolate budino looking too prim and proper.

Benno also excels at pasta. The silky green lasagna, served as a circle so pristine you’re almost remiss to touch it, features a hearty veal, beef, and pork ragu that miraculously doesn’t overpower the delicate pasta and cheese.

Excitement diminished at the arrival of our entrees. The veal chop should have been more tender. The 28-Day Dry-Aged Sirloin was good but not memorable. Both suffered from a liberal application of salt. The same heavy hand also affected a side of eggplant and a scallop antipasti – neither of which our table finished.

The bread and petit fours were plentiful but lackluster. Reminding you, both at start and finish, that Lincoln is not Per Se. Benno could easily and quickly solve these problems in an arrangement with that guy who owns Bouchon Bakery, but I have a feeling he’d prefer to figure it out on his own.

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

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