THE DINING REPORT – LINCOLN – A Meal To Set You Free

Well, it’s been a long time since we had a real Restaurant Roulette dinner, early summer in fact. Obviously, the economy is doing anything but stimulating people’s desire to dine, and many people actually seem so wrapped up in the upcoming election, they can’t be bothered with frivolities like group dinners (I swear, someone told me that.) After living so long without my fine dining fix though, I was getting awfully antsy to darken the doorstep of some new and talked about eating establishment. Having seen their attractive space right before they opened, and hearing almost entirely positive comments about it, Lincoln seemed an obvious choice for our first fall dinner on the RR roster (hopefully we’ll manage 1-2 more before the next change in the seasons.)

IMG_0666I made it a point to give everyone plenty of notice for this dinner, almost a month, and by the early returns, I thought for sure I would manage to fill the table I had booked. It didn’t work out that way though, the table only ended up one person over half full, be it the economy, the fact that people have just fallen away from the group, or that many were busy this evening. That really didn’t matter though, our group of six was a nice size for conversing, and everyone was a seasoned pro who’s company I enjoy. That being said, however, even with only six people we had to speak really loudly to be heard, as once Lincoln got busy, it turned into a very loud space with not particularly good acoustics.

That complaint aside, Lincoln is a nice place. Someone asked me about the building, and I told them I thought it was new, but according the the WW Restaurant Guide that just came out, it’s a refurbished building. I don’t claim to be overly knowledgeable about Williams, up until about three years ago, unless you lived around those parts, there was really no reason to ever visit Williams, or its sister street, Vancouver Avenue (one way couplets,) except for a great many small businesses that had seen better days, there wasn’t a whole lot around there. Thus has been the renaissance of inner North and Northeast Portland though, where formerly Mississippi, Russell, Alberta, Albina, and Killingsworth were sad streets of a bygone era, now they are the places to be for hot restaurants, interesting little shops, and young home owners hoping to still find a deal in an up and coming (most of those places, up and came already) neighborhood surrounded by people just like them. It seems like once Pix hit Williams a bit over three years back, there was no turning back, now you have the brewpub run by Old Lampoc, the always admired vegetarian haven Nutshell, just a few doors South, and now the first really talked about, fine dining joint on Williams, the earnestly named Lincoln (and yes, I read it was named after THAT Lincoln, everyone’s favorite tall bearded chap. Too bad he was a Republican.)

If I was to compare the vibe and feeling of the space, I would have to say that of all the restaurants that RR has visited, I suppose Lincoln reminded me most of Vindalho. Mainly, parts of the color pallete, all the glass, and the high ceilings, but also a feeling of modern but still warm and inviting. There is much attractive recycled wood inside Lincoln, which I read came from odd sources like old chicken coops and tobacco shacks from Tennessee or somewhere unusual like that, perhaps the Rebuilding Center has confiscated all of our local recycled wood products. IMG_0672Wherever the wood came from, it looks really great in this incarnation, Lincoln, with its lovely burgundy walls, wall candles, and soaring open ceilings (probably what wrecks the acoustics) is a welcoming place. Wood and stainless steel melded nicely together. Also, my vibe when passing through to visit the restroom (very pedestrian) was that the side street dining room with the garage doors and large gray booths have a slightly more modern feel than the Williams side with the smaller wooden tables, bar area and flickering candles.

I was relatively tardy arriving this evening (second to last) and by the time I got there, the opening beverages were at least partly consumed, so I didn’t really see what was ordered. I know Jody had something with bitters in it by the distinctive orangey-red color, and my guess would be “The Don Draper” a concoction of bourbon, muddled orange, brown sugar and bitters. Although certainly not to my tastes, as someone with a distain of both bitters and bourbon, I think Jody originally found it interesting, but it seemed to wear out its welcome about 2/3rd way through, and she didn’t finish it (OH MY GOD, someone not finishing their liquor!) I decided to take the “Elderflower Gimlet” for a test drive, a drink composed of Aviation Gin, St. Germain, lime juice and simple syrup. It certainly was not a bad drink, it just didn’t call out to me, and the liquidity was of a certain syrupy/oily consistency, something I notice in many cocktails nowadays but don’t find that refreshing. (Many of the martinis at Bartini are like this, and while I find their cocktail list admirable, especially at Happy Hour, I rarely order a repeat performance of a drink there.)

IMG_0675I thought the food part of the evening got off to a promising start when Glenda, our ultimate Grand Dame of Cuisine, stated she did not know what to order, as she wanted to order everything. I tried to encourage her to go ahead and order everything, that we would help her eat whatever she couldn’t, but somehow she didn’t go for that. That’s always a sign of a classy menu though, when Glenda can’t make up her mind because everything sounds good. Me, just give me some beefy thing, some fatty thing, and some cakey thing, and I’m all set.

We had quite a bit of diversification with the starters, the only duplication being David and Jody both taking a swing at one of the nights specials, potato and sage fritters. Both found the price a bit steep, a dollar a piece for about five inch round balls of dough, and neither was wowed by the taste. I actually had one of Jody’s fritters, and I thought they were quite good for fritters, which I usually find rather disappointing anyway, These seemed really fresh and crispy to me. David found them very so-so though, and Jody thought them too close to donuts, and kept looking for her sprinkling of powdered sugar. IMG_0668Although the price was perhaps a bit much for some overgrown potato marbles, compared to the prices for other starters, these seemed reasonable. I suppose if I have a complaint about Lincoln, besides the noise level, it’s that most of the starters seems a few bucks more than they really should be, especially as the entrees were not priced overly high.

Pat started out with a “puree of butternut squash soup with creme fraiche.” which was also somewhat reasonably priced at $6. She said it was okay, creamy and everything, and the serving was a decent size, but she found the flavor rather pedestrian, especially compared to the version she makes at home. IMG_0669Regis dove into a salad of “young lettuces with glenora grapes, sheep’s milk feta and hazelnuts.” Sounds okay, and I certainly thought about a salad, but $10 just seems too much to pay for a simple salad, and I hardly saw Regis smiling ear to eat, dancing on the table or yelling out it was the best salad he ever had.IMG_0670 Glenda had one of the two egg starters, but whether it was the $8 egg or the $12 egg, I’m no longer sure. I thought when I yelled my question about what she was eating, she said back, in her always librarian timbered voice, that she was having the hen eggs (one of Lincoln’s specialties – “baked hen eggs with cream, cerignola olives and herbed breadcrumbs”) but from my side of the table it looked more like it could have been the “poached duck egg with frisee, porcini mushrooms and tesia.” (God only knows what tesia actually is.)IMG_0671

As I was planning on a big honkin’ sounding entree, but still wanted something to take the edge off my hunger, I asked the waiter about two potential starters, and what their size might be. The individual sitting across the table from me laughed at my inquiry, supposing that perhaps I was ordering everything by what came in jumbo size, but I was actually only hoping to choose between two bready type items by what would perhaps fill me up the least. Of course it turns out that the smaller portion was the more expensive of the two, the large serving of flatbread with olives being somewhat pizza like and costing $10, while the more modest bruschetta rang up at $12 for two modest hunks of bread. IMG_0667I’m not particularly complaining, this was excellent quality bruschetta, slathered in thick high-quality blue cheese with wild mushrooms scattered on top. It really was good, but is it really necessary to charge $6 a piece for half a slice of toasted bread, no matter how high quality it is? (It seemed like Ken’s or Pearl Bakery bread, but you can generally buy a whole loaf for under $5, yumminess aside.)

As for the main courses, I obviously was not the only person who had read in the A & E that morning saying Lincoln had one of the two best steaks in Portland (the other being a delicious beefy thing at Castagna) although it also didn’t hurt that I kept blabbing about what I had read. Anyway, as it happens, five out of six of us on this evening had this particular steak, the sixth of us considering it as well, but finally deciding to strike out in a different direction by having the lamb. IMG_0673The preparation of the lamb is described on the internet menu as “lamb with parsnips, caramelized shallots and spinach,” so I’m thinking that’s what Jody had on the evening. Whatever the preparation, she found it excellent, and the one bite I sampled was quite mild compared to many of those lamb dishes that practically gag me on the way down my throat (perhaps this could be why I generally steer clear of the fuzzy white ones.)

As for that steak, I certainly saw more servings being delivered to tables than anything else on Lincoln’s menu (the power of publicity!) although people seemed to have varying opinions of the merits of the accompanying anchovy butter. Lincoln describes this pinnacle of steakery as “hanger steak with anchovy butter and onion rings.” A modest description for a meat bursting in flavor, tenderness, and perfect preparation. Needless to say, anchovies are one of those food items that many people seem to have a great deal of adversity toward, even if they have rarely eaten them,and I certainly would never select them for a pizza. But I tend to trust quality restaurants when they add them as a major ingredient, assuming there is method to their madness, that the extra fishiness and saltiness might be an important component in taking an average dish to the next level. Our friend Regis is obviously not an anchovy fan, so he wisely made sure to have his anchovy butter segregated in a metal cup, a decision many around the room shared, as anchovy is not exactly a taste easily hidden or removed.

The steak came to the table in tender and well marbled slices, with a hearty portion of crunchy, light, and not too greasy onion rings. Onion rings really are so much better when they are crispy, not flaccid. I could not finish them all, but they were quite delicious, certainly a rival to the Ringside’s famous onion rings. IMG_0674As anyone who has read one of my blatherfests most likely knows, I am no stranger to restaurant prepared steak, but I must state, this was one of the most perfectly cooked steaks, as far as degree of doneness, that I have had in a many moons. I’ve certainly had some wonderful steaks in my time with RR, but often, although a steak is still tasty, it is a few degrees overdone, which lessens my enjoyment. This hanger steak was perfect, seared on the outside for added flavor, warmed all the way through, but completely and magnificently rare. I’m sure the shape of hanger steak is beneficial in this respect, while thinner cuts like ribeyes and NYs can be relatively thin and hard not to overcook, the rather cylindrical shape of this cut allows it to sear and cook through without cooking out the redness. The anchovy butter added a definite thrust of flavor, not so much salty as gently fishy (gently fishy?) which might sound rather appalling, but was really quite good. Sadly, although I love it too dearly, beef can be rather neutral tasting, and a good steak usually needs something to zest it up, and most of my favorite steaks I have eaten around Portland have something good rubbed on them or dumped over them. So I thought the anchovy butter did add something. It didn’t seem to be making too many anchovy converts in the restaurant though, I know Regis didn’t like his anchovy butter, but still enjoyed his steak, and a girl across the way was seen trying to scrape off her anchovy butter after taking a taste. Those salty little monsters, you love them, you hate them, or you go both ways, depending on how they are being used. As it happens, Jody loves them, and was happy to be the recipient of Regis discarded anchovy butter, which she totally enjoyed as an added accessory to her lamb. Aside from slightly mixed feelings about the anchovy butter though, everyone at our table throughly enjoyed their steak and onion rings, and said Lincoln was a place they would gladly come back to.

As far as dessert, it’s one area where so far Lincoln has not generated kudos. The Oregonian, who liked Lincoln well enough to give it an A, actually knocked the grade down to an A- based on a lack of noteworthy desserts. IMG_0678But does that really matter, when the place is located kitty corner on Williams from Pix? In all the times I’ve been to Lauro Kitchen, I only recently had dessert there for the first time, for the very same reason, it’s located kitty corner to a Pix. After all, there’s dessert, and then there’s Pix, paragon of all naughty things, fine french pastries, designer chocolates, ice cream, corn nuts. That being said, 1/2 of our party this evening decided they were happy having dessert right where they sat, so tried out a couple of Lincoln’s desserts. Glenda had what looked like an apple tart tartin with a blob of probably home made ice cream. I didn’t see her spitting it out under the table (sometimes it’s so hard to stop her from doing that) so I’m assuming it was just fine. Pat and Regis both had the Ice Cream Sundaes, Pat’s featuring homemade vanilla ice cream (I think) and hot fudge, while Regis might have had the homemade praline ice cream and butterscotch (or maybe caramel.) IMG_0679Once I saw them, I thought they looked pretty good (although not gigantic by any means) and wished I had one, although the $8 was too rich for my blood (I sure did have my share of homemade ice cream sundaes at the old homestead over the coming week though.) With RR having become more of a sporadic things these days, I somewhat resented the prices at Lincoln for making me chose either a cocktail or a dessert. After all, I have to live in this terrifying economy too.

So I suppose that’s my one complaint when it comes to Lincoln (besides all the yelling we had to do at each other,) I don’t quite comprehend why the entrees are somewhat reasonably priced, but most of the starters are at least $2-$5 too expensive, and the desserts are all $8. I know quality ingredients are expensive these days, but is there a reason you almost have to gouge people when they want a full meal? Please let me have my drink and my dessert. Maybe the restaurant should have called itself Hamilton, instead of borrow the name from someone whose face appears on a penny and a $5. You’re sure not going to get by with those amounts here.

All in all though, it was a good dinner, in wonderful atmosphere, and with casual but immaculate service. The “vibe” inside Lincoln was happy, satisfied, and sated, people eating really good food in what already seems like a great place, even if it’s only been around about three months. So it can only improve, and hopefully flourish. Now, if only my bank account would do some improving and flourishing, because these RR dinners certainly are not getting any cheaper, and my wallet is absolutely not getting any fatter, although every other part of me is.

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