I last reviewed Jeff Fournier when he was chef at the Metropolitan Club, which had a menu with some clever items, including his remarkable invention “watermelon steak.” He’s brought that and a lot of extra creativity to 51 Lincoln, reminding me that he previously cooked at the late lamented Biba. And while 51 Lincoln isn’t cheap, it isn’t top ticket, either. My only modest complaint is that the spare décor makes the room too loud when full, as it already and deservedly is, even on a weeknight.
Fournier himself painted the bold, abstract works that decorate the restaurant, reportedly producing on site the enormous, five-panel neo-Mayan-dragon series that defines the long wall. Homemade food, desserts, and art!
Food starts with wine in oversize glasses and a basket with two breads: an outstanding soft Italian bread, oily with lots of holes and a yeasty flavor; and some slightly stale slices of homemade white bread. One is great by itself, but both work well with the pour of olive oil (flavored with rosemary, peppers, and garlic) and cloves of roasted garlic.
Regarding that watermelon steak ($9): Fournier still has a magical technique with watermelon, grilling some browned flavor into it so it cuts like raw tuna and tastes a little like grilled meat, although still with some watermelon flavor. He uses another trick for the garnish — an “eggplant chicharone” — which is a slice of eggplant cooked in such a way that it looks like a South American–style strip of thick, fried pork rind. It tastes like well-roasted eggplant. The platter also has a half-dozen cherry tomatoes broiled with feta cheese and dribbles of pesto.
An actual bit of Colombian-style chicharone makes another nifty appetizer with a couple of sea scallops ($12) and stacks of buttered arepas, tiny Colombian corn cakes with some sharp white cheese. Long, ultra-thin slices of plantain make “potato chips” to garnish “one-minute calamari” ($12). Presumably the name plays on the proverbial instruction to cook squid one minute or one hour to avoid rubbery-ness. Our squid had excellent texture, but too much hot-pepper oil to appreciate the subtle flavor.
Roasted-beet salad with goat cheese ($8) was a very pretty red-leaf salad with three colors of beets layered into a little tower, candied walnuts, goat cheese in a piped squirt to one side, and a terrific dressing. Another perfectly seasoned vinaigrette, said to be tinged with sugarcane, along with some decent winter tomatoes in quarters and sliced red onions, really made the “simple salad with mesclun greens” ($7).
In ordering the “Chef’s famous rigatoni bolognaise” ($15), I was in clear violation of Nadeau’s law: never order anything “famous.” I hadn’t heard of the dish before, but everyone will hear of it soon because Fournier has Frenchified Bolognese sauce with several meats and as much cream as tomato. It’s a wow!
“Fresh lobster noodles with butter-poached lobster” ($18) is another small portion with the richness to fill you up. Some lobster tomalley lightens up the noodles, with a mild taste effect. The noodles are great, two-inch-wide pasta; and the buttered lobster meat on top (half a small lobster) is outstanding.
Regular entrées also are quite moderately priced. Pan-seared skirt steak ($20) was rare as ordered and highly flavored, as this chewy cut usually is. It was perfectly garnished with a garlicky apple “jam,” buttered blue potatoes, and a salad of arugula and shaved parmesan. “Crispy skate wing” ($20) was filleted from a large skate; sautéed quite crisp, without losing any of the excellent skate flavor; garnished, as is typical, with brown butter and capers (although 51 Lincoln adds some garlic); and served with soft cauliflower and butter with a hint of cheese. Hearty eaters might want a side dish of starch for a few dollars more.
The off-the-menu (but apparently always available) vegetarian special ($17) was a Biba-like square dish with four items: a terrific, cold eggplant mousse stuffed back into a mini-eggplant shell; salty potato strings with very spicy jalapeño ketchup; a peppery but remarkably good tomato Provençal with crumbs and cheese; and some perhaps over-braised endive. As opulent a platter as any a carnivore could order.
The wine list runs up the price levels quickly, but the cheapest selections are very, very good. How could Jeff Fournier resist the 2004 Domaine Fournier Menetou-Salon “La Charnivolle” ($27)? Menetou-Salon is near Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, producing an aroma of tropical fruits and herbs (like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc) rather than the typical new-mown-hay nose of Sancerre. A glass of Santa Rita carmenere ($6) was an outstanding example of this grape, nearly extinct now in its native Bordeaux but heavily promoted in Chile. This was the best carmenere I’ve tasted, with a surprising backbone and some vivid fruit and “meaty” flavors.
Decaf was about as good as it gets, almost as good as the French-press decaf I had at Le Soir, which used to occupy this space. Desserts also reminded me of some I had at Le Soir — especially the hot apple pie ($6), with its free-form shape and delicate crust, and the hazelnut-chocolate-caramel tart ($6), with its surprising topping of whipped crème fraîche. The latter is almost pure chocolate, with a caramel layer (like a Snickers bar) and nuts studding the chocolate.