Jeffrey Fournier waited a long time for his own restaurant. And now, after a stint at the swank steakhouse Metropolitan Club, he's spreading his wings in this compact spot. The artwork on the walls is his creation. The dishes reflect his flirtation with Latin flavors and with pairing liqueurs with highly seasoned small appetizers. The sureness of his technique, and the echoes of the kinds of classics that he must have honed under Jacky Robert at Locke-Ober, can be dazzling. The wine list sports an interesting array of bottles at quite reasonable prices, with many under $35.
Even as a newbie, open since early January, 51 Lincoln is crammed with diners on several midweek visits. This Newton Highlands location has been many different restaurants, but the last occupant, Le Soir, primed the neighborhood for fine food and wine. So it's no wonder that the people around us on one visit are hopping from table to table, exchanging greetings, obviously thrilled that another plum dining option has claimed the spot.
Now if only Fournier can gain control of the service, which ranged from harried to clueless. He might start with the basics, especially the goodbyes. Filching a menu from the front desk was a breeze one evening since there was no one in the front at about 10 p.m. And on a second visit, staff members could be seen through the window into the kitchen, but there was no one in the front to retrieve coats. After we returned from finding them ourselves downstairs, our waiter walked through the foyer in front of us without saying a word - no apology about the self-service coats or a goodbye for the evening - and continued into the dining room, possibly to check that we'd left a tip.
Beyond those niceties, the staff just seems distracted and rushed and the delivery of dishes slow. They forget an order of a glass of wine, return only after long pauses, and one stares off in another direction while taking an order. Since the room is exceedingly noisy, that inattention adds to a jangly mood as we literally yell at each other in attempts at conversation.
That's too bad because you do want to concentrate on the food. One-minute calamari demonstrates why these squid rings are best sauteed briefly. They're tender and light, zapped with chilis, tempered with bits of tomato and basil, and topped with expertly fried slices of plantain. These rivaled the best French fries - Fournier should put them on the menu as a side dish. He keeps up the Latin flavors one evening in a special of tuna tartar that sings with lime juice and cilantro. He creates a version of a Caesar salad, thoughtfully arranged so that the lettuce stays crisp, the dressing is tangy, and the made-to-order croutons crunch satisfyingly but are soft in the middle.
In a phone interview, Fournier says he's especially interested in pastas and risottos, which he says are often not made well despite being on every menu. Take a mouthful of his black and white risotto, and you can taste his mastery. Each kernel has a little resistance to the teeth, while the risotto still conveys a voluptuous creaminess against the tongue. The flavor of Parmesan dominates since the slices of black truffle add more scent than taste.
Despite the chef's fondness for small plates such as those he did at the now-extinct Sophia's, 51 Lincoln has a long list of entrees. Crispy skate wing is a beautiful rendition of a classic, the mild fish brightened with brown butter sauce liberally studded with puckery capers. A plate of salmon looks almost severe - the fish, some asparagus, some jasmine rice, and a little pool of preserved lemon jam. But then the quick curing in spices, salt, and sugar registers, deepening the flavors of the slightly rare fish. Scallops have a good caramelized exterior, and their sweetness plays well off the fatty, spicy chorizo and against the bitterness of escarole. There's nothing unusual about roasted chicken in a thin pan gravy, but the skin is nicely crisp and the flesh moist. The braised short ribs are worth the calories you can feel trickling down your throat with every meaty bite.
At the entrance to the restaurant, a blackboard gives a foretaste of desserts - the ice cream and sorbet specialties made that day. It's good advertising and a sign that this is a course to be taken seriously. A very dense chocolate torte studded with caramelized nuts reinforces that. A fluff of a pumpkin flan topped with a fan of spun sugar makes the point in a lighter way, as does an apple gallette with lovely, flaky pastry. But the ice creams star - creamy vanilla, a sweet and nutty butter pecan, and slightly tart black raspberry. If 51 Lincoln decided to change gears, there could be a second life as an ice cream parlor.
The desserts cap off the strong culinary impression, and that deserves smoother service. Hopefully, that will happen as 51 Lincoln matures.