Photography by Evan Sung
If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear, does it still make a sound? This classic metaphysical riddle crossed my mind as Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds slinked past the bar at Lincoln and headed for a hidden banquette in the back of the dining room. I looked over to the woman on my left, an attractive matron in a St. John suit and Ferragamo shoes, hoping to share one of those New York moments, a silent-bonding raise of the brow or knowing nod among city folk that communicates, without words, Yeah, it was them. Pretty effing cool.
But she was too busy discussing the latest production of Boris Godunov with her husband, being staged a few hundred yards away at the Met, to notice. So I stirred my drink until my date arrived. “Is she really tiny in person?” he asked about ScarJo. Phew, I thought. That tree did fall.
What makes noise in the restaurant world these days? Defections, for one. Late last year Jonathan Benno, cooking consigliere to Thomas Keller over at Per Se, announced that he’d been lured away by the deep-pocketed Patina Group (La Fonda Del Sol, the Sea Grill, Brasserie 8 ½), perhaps tired of being watched by his former boss on Per Se’s famous Yountville-to-Manhattan closed-circuit television system. As one of New York’s most promising young Turks of the kitchen, he would helm Patina’s new Lincoln Center restaurant, cooking an Italian menu—a choice that caused some head-scratching.
Why not just steal the playbook from Per Se and guarantee instant, if less trailblazing, success? For one, going Italian was the natural way for Benno to adhere to what he knows best—Per Se’s cerebral, seasonal, ingredient-focused cooking—without seeming like an outright copycat. It may have also been a calculated decision. In a still-soft dining economy, Italian restaurants do good business. Pasta is both a crowd-pleaser and a boon to the bottom line—just ask chef Michael White, whose high-end Italian joints have secured practically every accolade in town, and a clientele eager to line up for a $28 bowl of noodles.
While Benno’s new post is a mere five-minute walk from his old employer, White’s new Italian job, Osteria Morini, is in Nolita, a geographical departure from the Midtown beachhead he’s established over the past half-decade.
In some ways, it’s a return to his roots. Before he became the kingpin in a growing, Mario Batali–style empire of Italian restaurants, White was an admired presence at the now-shuttered Fiamma, just a few blocks from Morini. Unlike Marea, his glossy seafood palace on Central Park South, this is a casual (though not cheap) paean to the rustic Emilia-Romagnan food he came to love during seven years spent in Italy. The space has exposed-beam ceilings, pre-worn floors, vintage black-and-white photos requisitioned from Bologna’s city hall and whole legs of ham stored in glass cases, just like they do in Rome.
A mix of downtown locals, White-heads and food-world insiders wear jeans and boots, drain bottles of lambrusco and eat fritti with savory fillings of ham or oozing béchamel; devour earthen crocks of gelatinous braised cockscomb and cranberry beans topped with toasty croutons; and thinly shaved, impeccably sourced meats. Tables are close, the music is loud and one is tempted to pierce a neighbor’s leftovers with the closest available fork.
The same intimacy goes missing at Lincoln, a restaurant that may be formal in its approach but will still need a dedicated neighborhood clientele to stay relevant. Lincoln famously cost $20 million to build, but if you’re not looking, you might miss where the other $19 million went. The front room is spare save for the sloping, wood-lined ceiling, thick glass walls affording views of a placid Lincoln Square plaza and rich matte granite surfaces that line the stairwell. As we ate our appetizers—clean, flavorful sweetbread-and–foie gras terrine featuring museum-quality plating, sweet scallops with roasted sunchokes and a drizzle of nutty sunflower oil—we heard life emanating from beyond.
It was coming from the expansive dining room on the other side, which has higher ceilings and a pool of tables facing the bright open kitchen, where Benno finishes plates before they head out of the pass. These, the best seats in the house, are reserved for walk-ins. But will $14 side dishes encourage that kind of business? Only time will tell.
Popping in for a plate of pasta would certainly be one viable way to go. It’s a menu category where Benno lives up to his promise. Caramelle alla zucca, little pasta packets named after cellophane-wrapped caramel candies, are light and buttery, with their filling of savory-sweet butternut squash. Spaghetti alle sarde is a lusty plate of brine—bottarga, capers, sardines and olives, all tangled up in firm, house-made noodles, topped with toasty bread crumbs.
Things go off the rails a bit when it comes to the entrées. Simplicity is admirable, but at near $40 for a plate of fish, dishes feel a tad underworked. A snowy cube of halibut atop braised greens could have used more distinctive accompaniments, and a grass-fed veal chop lacked the requisite good char to coax out the meat’s flavors, even if it started out sous-vide. Side dishes, like a plate of almost-meaty mixed mushrooms, are so substantial they could almost be a main course, and a circular disk of eggplant parmigiana is Proustian on the palate yet chic and refined in presentation. Benno, clearly a chef with massive talents, may just require a bit more time to feel his way around the top of the totem pole.
Over at Morini, flavor rules. Pastas—slippery, perfectly sauced pappardelle with a meaty ragù, or garganelli with a rich lashing of cream, truffle butter and speck—are almost too much, except they’re irresistible. Entrées, such as a mountain of mixed grill with juicy sausage, lamb and skirt steak, or a crisp-skinned roast porchetta, are so big they practically hang off the plates.
When it comes to new restaurant launches these days, there’s clearly more than one way to make an impression. When the stakes are as high as Benno’s, there can be more of a price to pay—something to consider when ordering one of Lincoln’s $30 appetizers.
218 Lafayette St., 212.965.8777, osteriamorini.com
HOURS Mon.–Fri., 7am–1am; Sat.–Sun., 10:30am–1am
WHAT TO EAT/DRINK Celery cocktail, all the pastas, fritto bolognese, polenta quattro formaggi, spiedini, porchetta.
DON’T MISS The vintage Italian food–product posters by
BEST SEATS The communal tables in the center of the
room are boisterous and fun—expect your neighbors
to share their leftovers.
SOUNDTRACK The Ramones,
Led Zeppelin, classic rock (think Babbo-lite).
WHAT IT COSTS Appetizers, $6–$14; entrées, $26–$39.
142 W. 65th St., 212.359.6500, lincolnristorante.com
HOURS Dinner, Mon.–Sun., 5:30pm–10:30pm; lunch, Mon.–Fri., 12:00pm–2:00pm; brunch, Sat.–Sun.,10:30am–2:30pm
WHAT TO EAT Caramelle alla zucca, spaghetti alle sardi, foie gras rabbit and sweetbread terrine, black Angus sirloin for two, all the desserts.
BEST SEATS The center area, reserved for walk-ins
FIELD TRIP If you go for lunch, make sure to take a post-meal stroll atop the restaurant’s sloping half-acre grass rooftop.
SOUNDTRACK Pins dropping.
WHAT IT COSTS Appetizers, $20–$30; entrées, $32–$45.