Who beamed us aboard the Starship Enterprise?” muttered one of the suburban voyagers at my table as we waited for our cocktails to arrive at Lincoln Ristorante, the dazzling postmodern dining palace that opened earlier this fall at the northern end of the newly refurbished Lincoln Center. Peering from our darkened corner banquette, we could see all sorts of strange, unearthly sights. Unlike the stylish, dungeonlike restaurants downtown, this one was as big as a private-jet hangar and sheathed largely in glass. The gleaming, state-of-the-art kitchen was also partially glass-enclosed, and manned, like the deck of Captain James T. Kirk’s starship, by some of the universe’s top talent, led by Thomas Keller’s famously cerebral, Spocklike former lieutenant Jonathan Benno, dressed in crisply pressed chef’s whites. The ceiling was covered in polished mahogany and canted at dramatic angles like a great sweeping strip of origami, and all around us, as we sipped our $14 Negronis, the huge white theater buildings glittered and glowed like giant planets in the evening sky.
This kind of theatrical spectacle has been a dim memory lately, in this burger-ravaged, postcrash metropolis. So you have to give the proprietors (the giant Patina Restaurant Group, in tandem with Lincoln Center) credit for thinking on such a grand, even majestic, scale. Unlike other ambitious New York restaurants of recent vintage, this 50-table operation isn’t housed in an old meatpacking plant, or a battered Brooklyn townhouse, or in the back of a formerly posh hotel. It resides in its own multilevel, $20 million “pavilion,” outfitted from scratch (by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which also oversaw the Lincoln Center renovation) with a marble bar and three separate dining sections—one by the kitchen; one facing south, overlooking the theater spaces; and the other to the west. The wine tower, too, is made with glass, the chairs are covered in cream-colored faux leather, and if you wish to digest your meal in a more bucolic atmosphere, you can do that on the roof, which is covered in a carefully manicured meadow of grass.
Surroundings like this raise expectations, of course, and so does the presence of a cook like Benno. The master chef has worked at the French Laundry in Napa and at Tom Colicchio’s Craft. For the past six years, he ran the day-to-day operations at Per Se with a legendary, clinical precision, while Thomas Keller shuttled across the country burnishing his (deserved) reputation as the greatest chef in the land. But being the captain of your ship is a vastly more challenging and complicated proposition than being first officer, and at this early stage (Lincoln has been open for seven weeks), the kinks, in both the cooking and the overall operation, are evident. Parts of the room are dimmer and less appealing than others (ask to sit by the windows overlooking the plaza). The service is genial but spotty (dishes linger awkwardly on the table between courses, checks sometimes get tabulated incorrectly), and the straightforward, all-Italian menu is short on dramatic, original flourishes, by the standards of a premier destination restaurant, and insanely overpriced.
“This is a lot of money to pay for one scallop,” said the woman to my left as she picked at her $24 appetizer, which consisted of a single (admittedly well-seared) sea scallop scattered with bits of sunchoke and set in a smooth, if unspectacular, almond purée. My $20 taste of tripe was fairly basic, too (its tripey taste was obscured by the rich tomato sauce), and so was the terrine (rabbit, sweetbreads, and foie gras, for $28), which somehow added up to less than the sum of its parts. The best antipasti and pasta dishes tended to be the simplest ones, like the milky wedge of burrata (plated with roasted squash) and a decently prepared spaghetti pomodoro ($22) tossed with cherry tomatoes and Parmesan. The other pastas included an unremarkable lasagne verde; bubblegum-sweet squash ravioli splashed with brown butter; and a promising-sounding bowl of rigati con granseoli (soupy rigati mingled with Dungeness crab and uni, for $30) that tasted, according to one of the mildly scandalized Food Aristocrats at my table, “like a fishy version of macaroni and cheese.”
There are faint glimmerings of Per Se–like innovation and excellence among the entrées at Lincoln, but at this stage they’re few and far between. The chicken-arrosto entrée is served with savory little chicken-stuffed cappelletti dumplings on the side, but the chicken itself (a single breast, for $34) lacks crackle. The major elements of my brodetto di pesce (red snapper and a single prawn, for $38) were nicely cooked (they’ve recently added lobster and littleneck clams, I understand), but there was barely enough salty, stewlike broth to cover the bottom of the bowl. The competent medley of roast lamb (sausage, chop, a confit of shoulder) is arguably worth its $38 sticker price, but my $42 veal chop was overdone and tasted faintly of the grill upon which it had been cooked. None of the seafood dishes I tried (good halibut with artichokes; a small, well-cooked piece of salmon; a tiny, mealy wheel of cod) had the kind of popping freshness you’d expect from a top-shelf restaurant, and the $130 rib eye for two was cut in fat, ham-fisted slabs and devoid of flavor, texture, and any kind of crunchy char.
Will Benno eventually whip his gleaming, futuristic ship into shape? Maybe. But it took Thomas Keller decades to find his voice as a chef, and sprawling restaurant conglomerates like the Patina Group aren’t usually conducive to the nurturing of first-rate auteur cooking. Lincoln may become a culinary destination one day. But right now, it feels more like a curious, slightly diverting way station, a place for the midtown cultural hordes to stop and gawk (and complain about the prices) before moving on to a night at the opera or ballet. The mood lightens slightly at lunch, when the hall fills with sunshine and the service feels less hurried. The desserts also enliven the proceedings a little, especially the chocolate-domed monte bianco and the flaky, dissolvingly sweet crostata topped with apples. But these dishes aren’t quite substantial enough to produce any flickering sense of occasion, and by the time they make their appearance, it’s already too late.