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November 03, 2009

51 Lincoln

Cambodian Style Mussels Dominic Armato


We're going to save the Power Rankings for Monday, and in the interim, I'm going to take the opportunity to knock a few restaurants out of the massive backlog I've been accumulating. We have some Boston spots, a trip to Chicago, a couple of old San Francisco stops I never got around to writing up... but first, something a little closer to home.

Tomato Jam (?)Dominic Armato

A little while back, whilst my father was in town for a couple of days and looking to treat my ladylove and myself to a casual little dinner out on the town, we decided to explore some of the local offerings and fell into 51 Lincoln. It's been getting some rather complimentary press, a warm, laid-back and yet creative suburban joint with a chef who makes his own pastas and cures his own pork. The menu online certainly looked promising, some nice combinations, a mix of flavors, but nothing that got too far off the beaten path. So we opted to pass on the big city and see what Newton Highlands had to offer. The vibe's great. It's homey, dim (as you might have guessed from the photo quality) and cozy, but it's got a little energy. The kind of place that's great to have around the corner when you want to fall in for a nice dinner out. Provided the food's good, of course.

Caesar Salad with BurrataDominic Armato

We got off to a great start, and though I don't like to spend too much time on little freebies, I nonetheless feel compelled to call out the slightly spicy and sweet tomato jam that accompanied our bread. It was swimming in a dish with a good olive oil, and the tomato flavor just exploded. Yeah, it's a bread dip, but it made a great first impression. Though the menu gets around geographically, we all ended up going Italian(ish) for our starters, my ladylove with a classic Caesar and the fellas with pastas, which are available either as entrees or true primi. This first full pass at the menu was... less exciting... but still entirely enjoyable.

Scallop PappardelleDominic Armato

My ladylove's Caesar -- well, okay, there's nothing at all Italian about a Caesar salad, but its twist was that it came with a large piece of burrata atop a giant crouton, thereby barely maintaining our thematic integrity. What's to say? It was a decent Caesar. Not especially creamy, probably a disappointment to traditionalists but well-executed. The burrata, I thought, was okay. Not nearly as fresh and creamy as I might've hoped. Though good burrata is incredibly hard to come by and I'd have a hard time faulting them for this acquisition. My pasta, a pappardelle with scallops and a number of other ingredients that slip my mind at the moment, was enjoyable in a neo-Italian sort of way, even for this pasta traditionalist. The pappardelle could have had more body and the whole plate was a little busy, but these are minor complaints. Well-balanced flavors, well-cooked scallops, and a well-received dish.

Rigatoni BologneseDominic Armato

The rigatoni Bolognese, for which they're apparently famed, elicited something more of an "eh..." response. It was a fairly mellow version, containing -- I'm guessing -- some veal and/or pork. It was more wet than oily, which I don't consider a good thing. But again, the flavor was solid and layered and about the only significant complaint I can make is that the pasta was a little ways on the limp side of acceptable, to my tastes. Italians aren't turning in their graves, but they're a little restless. in any case, a solid dish, even if one that I'd be reluctant to hang my hat on as a signature dish.

Polenta FriesDominic Armato

Another dish for which they're known, however, is entirely worthy of the praise. The polenta fries, thick batons of creamy cornmeal fried up inside a crisp shell and accompanied by a parmesan and truffle dip, were salty and hot and delicious. They'd be dangerous if there were more of them, and the fact that they arrived in between our first and second courses only put the focus on them that much more. They disappeared in about 30 seconds. It was also about this time that the kitchen opted to send out a little sample for us, an amuse portion of their Cambodian style mussels appetizer, with lemongrass, chiles, lime and a touch of coconut milk. On this front, I was considerably less enthused. The flavors were on point, but they were weak, making it seem like the kind of Asian lite dish intended not to offend with the kind of explosive flavors that typically come out of Southeast Asia. If the regular dish is served with a pool of the broth and a little bread, it might come across differently. I can't say. But in this format, it just fell flat.

Swordfish with SunchokesDominic Armato

My entree was a grilled swordfish with risotto, shaved sunchokes and a sort of lemon compote. The fish was on, crusty and nicely seasoned and the sunchokes were on, providing a nice textural contrast. The risotto was less exciting, coming across as somewhat watery and bland, wanting for both flavor and salt, which is not what you need when supporting a grilled piece of fish and a very subtly flavored vegetable. The whole dish was saved by the delicious lemon compote, which was aggressively sweet and sour and provided some bright zip that the rest of the dish desperately needed. Sadly, potent as it was, there wasn't nearly enough of it -- more of an indictment of how much needed brightening than the compote itself. There was a good dish in here. It just had issues.

Salmon with Soy Mirin ReductionDominic Armato

My father's entree couldn't have been more simple, a piece of roast chicken with mashed potatoes, asparagus and a chicken jus which I didn't taste but he rather enjoyed. My ladylove's entree, however, had me annoyed from the get-go. Before I rant, I'll supply two caveats, that she was entirely pleased with her dish (in fact, it was the second time she'd ordered it, having visited for a business dinner earlier), and that on a technical level, I'm not sure I can fault the dish. But what we're talking about is a piece of salmon with a soy and mirin reduction atop julienned vegetables and rice. I mean, do we really need another version of this dish? Especially one that could not be more firmly planted right in the middle of the box? This isn't roast chicken. It isn't some timeless classic that you don't mess with. This is a dish that has catered wedding written all over it. I took one bite and thought to myself, "Really? Are you trying to further the stereotype that suburban restaurants serve boring, dumbed-down cuisine?" And it's a timid, underpowered version to boot. Sadly, it's one of the few dishes that seems to have survived the menu's seasonal transition, which indicates it might be a permanent fixture. Too bad. It's a waste of menu space.

Dessert involved some lovely sorbet and a disappointing crème brûlée. The latter looked perfectly fine, but its crust had mostly lost its crunch and the crème beneath was much warmer than it should have been, indicating that it probably sat in the kitchen for a while after being torched. Disappointing.

I came away a little puzzled by 51 Lincoln's acclaim. Some rather educated food folk have said some very nice things, but our only tack-sharp dishes of the evening were a side and a bread dip. And though execution might have accounted for some of it, this was smack-dab in the middle of the dinner hour on a Friday night, so it seems unlikely that it was a matter of the B Team not quite firing on all cylinders. This wasn't a bad meal by any stretch of the imagination. It's just that a lot of things were... fine. Suffice it to say that 41 Lincoln didn't do much to dispel that suburban restaurant stereotype. I didn’t see any compelling reason to travel for it, and if you live in the area, the only reason I can think of not to drive into the city is to save yourself 20-30 minutes in either direction. And that's not enough.

51 Lincoln
51 Lincoln Street
Newton Highlands, MA 02461
Mon - Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM


Hopefully this is not indicative of your overall culinary experience in Boston. During my three years in the city I can honestly say that there are a lot of restaurants with great buzz that are merely mediocre. The single best meal I had in the city was lunch at Radius during restaurant week. While the food is a touch too fussy for me, every single bite sang and every bit of food on the plate was perfectly executed. My second best meal was at Sibling Rivalry in the South End. Other than that, stick with the Banh Mi from the Pho Viet stall in Super 88. Those things are amazing.

No, no, been great food so far... more coming.

(And I've had those banh mi on a couple of occasions... damn good stuff from that little stall!)

I enjoyed reading that review. You begin by compelling me to have high expectations, because of the starter, then you reveal the disappointment, and then you blow up in fury over the Kirin salmon. A good read.

As far as suburban dining, I've read (and confirmed within my limited sample size of 2) that the best places to eat are the strip mall ethnic places without English menus. Low suburban rents + lots of immigrants = very flavorful ethnic cuisine.

I have to say, I'm not sure I would have guessed that's risotto under the swordfish -- looks more like cream of wheat! Can't say I'm surprised to hear it was a bit watery.

Damn it, Dom. Yesterday, I was thinking about one of my last days in Boston, where I did a dessert trip in the North End - Modern Pastry, Mike's Pastry (both for their cannolis)...and a hot chocolate from the place next to Mike's Pastry.

I got sad, and then I remembered that I live (almost) in New York City and got happy again, since the food here is head and shoulders above Boston's...except there's no dessert place here that I like as much as I loved Mike's.

Now I'm in the mood for a good cannoli...and Ferrarra just won't cut it.

Is there no TC this week? (The first sentence of the review seems to imply that there is not TC.)

Two comments:

1. I'm not sure Rigatoni is an appropriate choice for the Bolognese. A long, straight pasta is usually a better choice. The ridges in the rigatoni is worth partial credit, but it strikes me as an ill thought-out choice.

2. In your Boston travels, I wouldn't mind if you tried and reviewed Blue Ginger. I know its sort of cliche now, but I've tried some recipes from his cookbook (gift), and it seems merely ok. I would love to know if the long-running praise is worth it, or its just because it was one of the first "east meets west" places.

So, you close this review with <>. That is a full 10 digit downgrade for them [and a different street address] which seems to mirror your review in general.

ACK.... it clipped by quote:

Suffice it to say that 41 Lincoln

I knew there was something missing from this review; it finally hit me: where is the celebrity sighting portion??

Ack! mncharm, I laughed outloud at your comment, very nice :)

Independent George - Are you in the Boston area? If so, I (and I'm guessing Dom as well...) would love to hear if you have any recommendations for good strip-mall-ethnic places. I've been to a couple of Vietnamese places in Dorchester that I've enjoyed (Pho 2000 and Anh Hong), where most of the patrons are Vietnamese, does that count???

Thanks for a well written review. I've found that damned few places achieve the correct texture for risotto, which, to be fair, requires not only a competent chef, but a competently managed waitstaff. I've botched it a few times myself by failing to get it on the plate, in front of the diner, in a timely manner.

Are you a make-the-pasta-on-site traditionalist?


Search Dom's archive for "Pasta Secca"

kit - I'm actually in Chicago, and my sample size of two includes an Ethiopian place in NY, and a Vietnamese place near Austin, TX. Both were years ago, and I've completely forgotten everything except the fact that I left both places very, very happy (all the more surprising in TX because my shellfish allergy eliminated 2/3 of the menu).

Will - Dom's views on pasta can be found in this post (accessible via the 'favorites' section on the right).

Thanks Dom. Great review. You really made me feel like I was eating there.

You pinpointed why I so rarely order salmon. It seems to bring out the unimaginative side of so many chefs. I've had some great salmon dishes but more often than not they tend to disappoint and leave me wishing I had ordered something else.

Thanks. I appreciate the admonition that one should not claim a side in the fresh vs. dry debate, but I must admit that my most enjoyable pasta dishes have been on the fresh side of the street.

Danny, doesn't it seem as if salmon is the sort of thing, in many parts of the country, in which the quality of the product frequently overshadows the skill of the chef, in terms of the final result? I've had too much high priced salmon in restaurants where, upon the first bite, I knew the result never had a chance to be wonderful, because the foundation was never there.

Will, your fondness of fresh pasta (and mine is well) is that in fresh pasta dishes, the pasta is the focus (various stuffed raviolis, angilotti, etc.), wheresa with dry pasta, the sauce tends to be a bigger portion of the overall dish. That's a gross oversimplication, of course, but I tend to like lighter dressed pastas, and have found that fresh pasta works better in those scenarios.

"As far as suburban dining, I've read (and confirmed within my limited sample size of 2) that the best places to eat are the strip mall ethnic places without English menus. Low suburban rents + lots of immigrants = very flavorful ethnic cuisine."

Hear, hear!

"I'm not sure Rigatoni is an appropriate choice for the Bolognese.

I'm also frustrated by poor shape/sauce pairings, but I think rigatoni works with Bolognese. Of course, I also have an unnatural affinity for rigatoni, so I may not be viewing this particular pairing objectively.

*shuffles through bookshelf*

Hey, whaddya know... Marcella Hazan endorses rigatoni for her Bolognese, if you put any stock in her opinion :-)

"I wouldn't mind if you tried and reviewed Blue Ginger."

I'm curious about it myself, and it's on the list. I don't hear a lot of particularly good things, and to say there's been an East/West backlash is putting it mildly, but I do intend to get there sooner or later. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

"Are you a make-the-pasta-on-site traditionalist?"

As others have pointed out, I don't even favor fresh pasta, much less that which has been made on-site (I don't disfavor it, either). By "traditionalist", I just mean that when pasta dishes start getting fussy, I get suspicious. Mind open, but skeptical.

"You pinpointed why I so rarely order salmon. It seems to bring out the unimaginative side of so many chefs."

More importantly, for me anyway, unless it's at a fine dining restaurant, it's usually way overdone for my tastes. Though I sometimes sympathize with kitchens that send it out that way. If they made it the way I like it, I suspect half of them would come back.

"Thanks. I appreciate the admonition that one should not claim a side in the fresh vs. dry debate, but I must admit that my most enjoyable pasta dishes have been on the fresh side of the street."

Hey, I take no issue with those who express a preference. Merely with those who suggest that one is inherently superior or more legitimate than the other.

I also tend to shy away from ordering salmon as it usually comes overcooked. But for an interesting salmon dish in Boston, I would definitely suggest the salmon Haw Moak at Khao Sarn, in Coolidge Corner. It's steamed in banana leaves and arrives with a mousse-like consistency. The place gets great reviews, but I don't remember being terribly impressed with my app. The Haw Moak though is worth the trip.

Ok, I'll give you and Marcella a pass on the rigatoni. ;)

I prefer either a pappardalle (fresh, of course) or a spaghetti (usually dry) with my hearty meat sauces.

One other thing. you say:

"More importantly, for me anyway, unless it's at a fine dining restaurant, it's usually way overdone for my tastes. Though I sometimes sympathize with kitchens that send it out that way. If they made it the way I like it, I suspect half of them would come back."

So, why not ASK the customer how they want it? They always ask for beef, even hamburgers, and getting asked for tuna is pretty standard now too. But, I think I can count twice in my life where we have been asked on salmon; both included a recommendation from the chef, and one was easily the best restaurant salmon we've ever eaten.

That people like their fish overcooked is no reason for the rest of us to suffer.

I'd love to hear your opinion of Lumiere in Newton, either for restaurant week or their normal menu...

Will, you are so right about the need for high quality product. I was in Anchorage about 8 years ago visiting friends and they had these amazing whole salmons. Cleaning a salmon is the most disgusting thing I've ever done. The outside is covered with about a 1/2 inch of gelatinous slime which takes forever to scrape off. Scaling, not so bad. But cutting the salmon was an experience as there is a lot of blood which tends to splash on you. But wow was that salmon good.

Dom, I absolutely equate salmon with overcooked, dry and covered in some flavorous glaze. I so rarely order salmon because I assume that is how it is going to be. Why is it that you can routinely get ahi seared rare in a restaurant but you can't get salmon cooked rare/medium rare?

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