Friday, June 5, 2015

51 Lincoln Brings Latin Heat to Suburbs

Amidst the tranquil streets and shops that make up Newton Highlands lies a forward-thinking restaurant that is known for producing bold flavors and inventive, Latin-influenced dishes. 51 Lincoln, the brainchild of chef/owner Jeffrey Fournier, has been a longtime staple of local residents, several of whom stroll into the bar on a busy Saturday evening and are warmly greeted by affable bartenders who whip up stiff, well balanced cocktails. Fournier, who grew up in a French-Armenian home, isn’t afraid to take risks in the kitchen, some of which succeed, while others do not.
The restaurant is divided into two floors, the upstairs section more lively (and noisy, making conversation somewhat challenging) while the more intimate lower level presents the polar opposite challenge – it is so quiet, that you may very well hear that proverbial pindrop and thereby be afraid to raise your voice for fear of being considered too loud. Fournier’s funky, abstract artwork of his own creation adorns the walls, a harbinger of the eclectic cuisine to come.
 A house special appetizer of Spanish mackerel ceviche with green papaya and Georgia pea hummus ($12) hits all the right marks, the fish beautifully seasoned, the ceviche less soupy than more traditional versions (intended to be a compliment), while the vibrant green pea hummus adds visual appeal. The dish garners universal praise across the table. Just about equally as good is a generous slab of creamy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken liver pate (a steal at $6), although more than 2 thin crostini pieces are required for spreading.

 Other starters falter to different degrees. A baked to order skillet cornbread with jalapeno jam ($4) sounde intriguing, only to be ruined by the bread being overcooked, while the jalapeno jam is more jalapeno than jam, which results in a slightly off-putting texture (soggy jalapenos atop dried out bread = meh). And while Fournier’s signature pan seared watermelon steak with pea hummus, charred spring onion, radish salad and French feta ($12) sounds fascinating, the dish’s execution is poor and the overall concept lost on me. While the sear on the two watermelon slices does transform its look into something resembling pieces of steak, the texture is akin to biting into a fatty piece of meat while the watermelon flavor itself virtually disappears (I doubt that is the kitchen’s intent). Also, the pea hummus, which worked so well with the mackerel ceviche, here is carelessly splattered across the plate (and adds little flavor to boot), as if someone sneezed between the 2 watermelon slices. While I applaud Fournier’s innovative approach to the fruit, it is unfortunately our least favorite dish of the evening.

 Entrees are on the whole very strong, starting with Chef’s Famous rigatoni Bolognese ($14 for an appetizer, $28 for an entrée), an enormous portion of piping hot pasta tubes with nicely seasoned meat sauce consisting of veal and pork. A beautifully plated whole roasted bronzino ($29), usually a relatively bland white fish, here is elevated by tabbuleh salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, and tahini vinaigrette. It is lovely to look at (even as its eyes peer out at you) and devour. A special of crispy soft shell crab ($16 for appetizer, $32 for entrée) is, however, disappointing, given that its coating is more soft than crispy, while the crab itself is woefully underseasoned. A glaring omission from the dish is a dipping sauce that almost any crab would come jumping out of its shell begging for, especially since this version is paired with redundantly textured johnny cakes.

 Dessert is satisfying in the form a moist, chocolate tres leches cake ($8) served atop vanilla sauce (the accompanying espresso-pecan soil is barely discernible, but no matter).

 A small, yet interesting selection of cocktails is worth your time, particularly the Fresas Del Gaucho, a refreshing, spicy concoction consisting of tequila, lemon, strawberry puree, elderflower liquer, honey, and habanero (be sure, however, to ask for the Bartender’s Special, as the bartender, upon inquiring about my tolerance for heat, inserted several chilies into my initial drink, rendering my lips numb). The restaurant’s wine list has a surprisingly limited variety of options available by the glass, but a 2012 Michal & David Syrah produced out of California ($11) is light and pairs quite nicely with the hearty rigatoni. For such a Latin-influenced restaurant, wine bottles – which seem marked up much too high here - surprisingly nod more towards Napa, although there are some selections hailing from Spain and Latin America.

 Service is satisfactory, our waitress pleasant and attentive enough, although deferring to the maître d’ when fielding questions on the restaurant’s bourbon selection.

 As we’re departing for evening, one of those engaging bartenders thanks us for our patronage and asks us to join them again. And given Fournier’s experimentation in the kitchen, it’s easy to see why regulars continue to flow into his establishment years after its much heralded opening. Fournier’s dishes frequently swing for the fences, and more often times than not they make contact, so it’s easier to forgive the swings and misses. The quiet, cozy confines of Newton Highlands, after all, demand some spicing up every now and then.