Honest Like Abe

On an up-and-coming North Portland strip, Lincoln soothes with humble dishes, simple flavors, and steady service.

By Nino Padova May 19, 2009 Published in the January 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Kim Nguyen

IN THESE ANXIOUS TIMES—when restaurateurs pore over receipts like tarot card readers—we consumers play it safe. “Discretionary spending” starts to sound like a dirty word, and the thought of dropping a day’s wages on dinner gives us indigestion.

That’s why I was surprised when, on my first visit to Lincoln, the place was hopping. A crowd of thirtysomethings flocked around a triangular bar, sipping gimlets and old-fashioned cocktails, and the dining room hummed with table banter.

A few nights later, ditto. And a week after that, amid a torrential rainstorm, same thing: the hostess helped me out of my coat and plopped me down next to a group of women merrily clinking wine glasses together like characters in a Candace Bushnell novel.

Had some lost batch of stimulus checks flooded the mail? These were weeknights, weak times, and the place hadn’t been open six months.

But if ever there were a restaurant ideally suited to navigate these muddy financial waters, Lincoln is it. The handsome brainchild of husband-and-wife team David Welch and Jenn Louis, Lincoln exudes a steady confidence that soothes more than it struts. I see it in the menu that changes daily and features seven entrées and as many starters. I notice it in the sturdy tables made of fir that once walled Kentucky tobacco houses. I sense it in the warm greeting I receive. And though the restaurant is new, it doesn’t come across as new-fangled—on my first visit, I almost felt as if I’d been there before.

Only I hadn’t. I would’ve remembered the enormous framed rooster on the wall when I walked through the door, a charcoal drawing by Portland artist April Copini. In a way, the image embodies Lincoln’s overall ethic: industrious, straightforward, and unambiguously humble.

Chef Louis—who worked the kitchen at Wildwood from 1998 to 2000, where she met Welch, then a waiter at the restaurant—cooks with remarkable restraint, eschewing big flavors and gimmickry for freshness and balance. Her dishes are ingredient-driven and quite often outstanding, as with the signature appetizer of two hen eggs baked with cream and chopped green olives, then sprinkled with thyme bread crumbs before arriving at the table in a ceramic skillet; or a simple hanger steak, the beef delicate and moist and placed on top of a rich blue cheese butter, beside it a tower of crunchy buttermilk-dipped onion rings.

In fact, all the meat items on the menu are cooked to the perfect texture and temperature—the kitchen adheres to a strict translation of medium rare—and they’re all sensibly priced (the average entrée runs just under twenty bucks). I fell hard for a plate of sliced pork shoulder served over creamy potato-and-parsnip purée and blasted with a piquant salsa verde. It would have been a great value at $18, but given the addition of a boneless smoked pork shank folded into the mix, it’s a steal.

The salads veer toward the minimal but have a tendency to shape-shift from one night to the next. A plate of vibrant young greens might partner with radishes and pine nuts on a Tuesday only to return the next evening in the company of roasted red beets, grated hard-boiled egg, and champagne vinaigrette. The same mutability extends to the bruschetta, which, depending on when you dine, could be dressed in a chunky lamb ragú or smothered in warm roasted apples, walnuts, and Gruyére.

At times Louis’s minimalism, which works well in capturing the earthy essence of the cianfotta (vegetable stew) of chanterelles, braised greens, arugula, and slivers of spaghetti squash, renders dishes too pedestrian. My plate of cavatelli with polpette (beef meatballs, in American speak) had little personality, the tomato-butter sauce too thin and out-of-the-can bland.

Not that a jar of Chef Boyardee wouldn’t feel at home here. Lincoln is located in a concrete-slab warehouse that was occupied by the Oregon Food Bank until 2001. The space has been revivified to include arching skylights, sandblasted wood trusses, and two large glass garage doors that the staff rolls open on warm nights.

As for the economic cold spell—who can say how long it will last? A couple of days before my final visit to Lincoln, Nutshell, a vegetarian bistro housed in the same building, closed its doors for good. If consumer confidence doesn’t recharge soon, other restaurants may follow suit. Then again, maybe Louis and Welch have found a formula for survival with their back-to-basics approach. Or maybe it’s the name: Lincoln—an Illinois legislator who became president and led the country through some of its darkest days.

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