On Tuesday night, Grub Street joined up with dapper GQ’ers and fashion-deprived foodies for a cocktail party at Lincoln, celebrating Alan Richman’s gutsy proclamation that the restaurant is the best in the country. Richman, the ubiquitous star of the soiree, was happy to sit down over drinks and what looked like prosciutto-wrapped pretzels to explain his decision to crown the tepidly received Lincoln as the ultimate eating experience today. Considering our recent words about Richman’s devotion to the restaurant, he was a little defensive, a bit tipsy, and very happy to have taken his “two subways and a bus” from the ‘burbs to be near Lincoln chef Jonathan Benno. He also mused on food blogs, Marea, and an upcoming appearance on the HBO show Treme. The full interview, straight ahead.
Lincoln as the Best Restaurant … really? Here’s your chance to defend this decision!
Okay, No. 1, I think it’s stunning. Granted, I don’t know anything about physical space, but I know I love it. (2) It’s a freestanding New York restaurant and that takes vast ambition. I am always looking for that level of ambition, and you don’t see it on this scale often. (3) The passion and dedication of chef Benno. (4) What other new restaurant has the class of this one?
But you didn’t even mention the food, is that No. 5?
I’m getting there! We all know and agree that Benno can produce amazing things. Do I think the food is soaring? No. Do I think the food is very good? Yes. Look, there’s Cesar Ramirez at Brooklyn Fare where every single thing he puts out is perfect. Just perfect. I can’t say Jonathan is doing that here — yet. At this point, half of his food is killing me because it’s so good and half the food is going to get better. The man is a perfectionist; he’s not going to settle until it’s perfect.
So why all the haters?
I think Adam didn’t like the food, and Bruni [Editor’s note: He means Sifton] didn’t like the place, so there’s no consensus on what’s bad here. You can’t just dismiss something like this because you had a bad entrée or because a waiter made a mistake. My summation is this is a restaurant that has more potential than any restaurant I’ve seen in years.
Do you taste Thomas Keller in Benno’s food?
The main courses say Keller, yes. It’s the precision. And I’m not sure that’s the best thing for Benno here. That Keller approach might not be the best thing for Italian food, to be honest. The Keller style is a little too … un-Italian.
What got you more excited, Lincoln, or last year’s choice, Marea?
Marea was knocking the food out of the box right away. The service was mixed, and the room wasn’t on this level. But the food was almost perfect. Michael White was always there and always in the kitchen, and that’s how the food soars.
[Drew Nieporent politely interrupts the interview.]
Drew: Alan Richman is the last remnant of a phenomenal food journalist in America. Don’t listen to what they say about Jon Mariani, this is the best food journalist right here! I’m always pissed off at Alan, but that’s our MO.
He loves you … who wouldn’t?
Oh, I am hated by many! I just made a cameo on that show Treme because they say I’m “the most hated man in the history of New Orleans.” You have to watch and see. It’s a fictional plotline, but I appear as myself. I guess it happened because I was critical of New Orleans the year of Katrina … look it up … I made joke comparing Creoles to Leprechauns. It was a joke!
Do you read the blogs?
Not really. There’s too many critics, it’s too diverse. None of it matters. It’s the same hierarchy as always, New York Times and New York Magazine are the most important ones; they’re the top ones, no question about it. They can do a lot of good or a lot of damage to restaurants. In New York, I think print has crushed the blogs. There are so many people blogging about restaurants that the print people have returned to preeminence. I mean, there are a few good food bloggers … Josh Ozersky drives me crazy. Half the time he’s brilliant, half the time I want to punch his face in. He’s a talented guy. He’s a smart guy who does so many stupid things. But he does so many brilliant things too.
Any chefs you’re afraid of because of things you’ve said or done?
Oh no, I’m not afraid of anyone. There’s even a chance I could beat up some chefs, even at my age. I’m a lot faster than the big guys. I could run rings around Michael White and Mario Batali.
If you get drunk tonight, where are you going to go for late-night food?
Celeste on Amsterdam. It’s this ridiculous, crowded, cramped place. Carmine, who owns it, abuses everyone, including me. I love that; I miss being abused at restaurants. If I get really drunk, I’ll go to Big Nick’s and get a burger.
Whatcha drinking over there?
Oh, they gave me a damn mint julep. Jews don’t drink bourbon!