By Suzanne Struglinski - 06/02/11 11:19 PM EDT
Small change, meet small plates.
After a meal at Alan Poposky’s new downtown restaurant, Lincoln, you will never look at the penny the same way again — or mason jars, chicken pot pie, funnel cake or macaroni and cheese, for that matter.
It is impossible to talk about the new restaurant without bringing up the floor. The 3,200-square-foot space is covered with hundreds of thousands of pennies, the brainchild of designer Maggie O’Neill. The exact number is a secret and part of a patron guessing game, with a $250 prize to whomever can name the exact number.
Beyond the copper coin carpet, O’Neill managed to make her Civil War-era theme feel modern without setting foot into kitschy territory. The Emancipation Proclamation is etched into one of the dining room’s walls and is brought to life with backlighting, and the American flag is sculpted into another wall. Mason jars serve as light fixtures, giving the space a backyard feel, like you’re eating at someone’s home. And the giant white chair inspired by Honest Abe’s Washington memorial commands presidential attention.
Lincoln’s influence is hard to miss elsewhere in the restaurant. Servers wear T-shirts with his portrait; colorful, modern murals with his likeness decorate the space; copper mugs keep cocktails cold. Diners have responded — Lincoln has become a spot for celebrations with large groups dressed for a night out or casual co-workers grabbing something after business hours.
Master mixologist John Hogan uses those copper mugs to his advantage. Full bowls of whole eggs and ginger root sit behind the bar, which at times can seem like a kitchen itself as bartenders mix and shake American-themed concoctions.
The Moscow Mule, which the menu says was created in Los Angeles at the Cock and Bull Saloon in the early 1940s, has ginger, vodka and lime. The copper mug is listed as an ingredient, and it should be, as drinking it out of another container might not keep it as cold. It is a refreshing, strong cocktail, similar in taste to a lemon-lime soda.
Honest Abe’s Moonshine — served in a mason jar — contains white whiskey, orange bitters and fresh lemon, but leaves out the dank basement taste its namesake might’ve had.
Citrus flavors find their way into other dishes, too. Three quarter-sized crabcakes sit on top of an avocado-grapefruit spread. The subtle grapefruit flavor adds a pleasantly sour tang to the cake, which is all meat, no filler. The tuna tartar, a favorite of the table, brings a cool stack of finely diced raw fish on top of a tightly packed circle of diced lemon, cucumbers and horseradish, evoking a sushi-like flavor.
Cucumbers and other vegetables are not confined to sides or garnishes here. Vegetarians will be happy to hear that farm-stand staples get star treatment. For example, long, ribbon-like peels of carrot wind through the carrot salad with pine nuts and a delicate vinaigrette, and grilled asparagus finds a home underneath poached eggs and mustard sauce. The restaurant prides itself on fresh ingredients, and the flavors of the veggie dishes prove it.
The creativity doesn’t stop with the vegetables. The fried quail comes on top of miniature waffles and with a tiny pitcher of maple syrup. The small pieces of meat have the tell-tale crunch of fried food, and while the batter could have used more seasoning, the salty-sweet combination proved successful.
The kitchen fryers also work well with the funnel cake, the fair-food staple that finds a home here on the dessert menu. The warm, fried dough comes with cherry compote for dipping and has the same great taste and texture — probably even better — as at the neighborhood carnival. The cake is crispy on the outside but soft on the inside and does not leave you with greasy fingers.
Also on must-try list are the chicken pot pie and the pork belly. The pot pie has all the flavor of the childhood favorite but is nowhere near as heavy. It arrives in a bowl with a “pastry top hat” instead of a full crust. The velvety, almost broth-like pie filling includes uniformly diced potatoes and carrots with green peas and large slices of chicken. The result is a chicken soup-type flavor, but with a note of creaminess.
As for the pork belly, three fat pieces of meat have a smoky flavor and really need little else. The pork melts in your mouth like meaty butter.
Continuing on its comfort-food theme, the macaroni and cheese combines smoked gouda, parmesan and cheddar cheese in a small cast-iron skillet that arrives bubbling and with a nice crust on top. It is a rich, salty dish — heavier than the others. The gouda’s smokiness adds a welcome new taste to the familiar favorite.
Moving from familiar to more unique, the grilled Brook Trout arrives with grill marks and a strong, fishy flavor. The accompanying lentils and avocado puree add a green balance to the dish and calm down the fish flavor.
The lobster and fava bean risotto could use more chunks of shellfish and less cheese, but another risotto, the caramelized grape version, is an interesting mix of arugula, roasted walnuts and goat cheese. The creamy rice is punctuated with salty nut pieces and spicy greens. Slices of cooked grapes give the dish a third dimension.
The service is great, with food coming out as it is ready and staff offering fresh plates as needed, particularly when sharing numerous dishes with a crowd. While staring at the floor in-between courses, it is hard not to reach down and pick up a penny, but in reality, sitting down with friends and food at Lincoln already makes it your lucky day.