Dining Out: The Graduate

I hope Newton residents will forgive me when I say that getting to 51 Lincoln is like visiting Brigadoon. Yes, it’s merely a bangle’s throw from The Mall at Chestnut Hill, but just try finding the turn from Route 9.

I hope Newton residents will forgive me when I say that getting to 51 Lincoln is like visiting Brigadoon. Yes, it’s merely a bangle’s throw from The Mall at Chestnut Hill, but just try finding the turn from Route 9. When you finally do, as everyone living near Newton Highlands knows, a sparkling main street suddenly appears, part of a small downtown with welcoming shops and restaurants. Jeff Fournier’s 51 Lincoln is cheerful and bright—a less dressy version of its surprisingly formal predecessor, Le Soir. But an outsider might wonder if it’ll be here on another night, or whether, as with Brigadoon, you’ll have to wait a hundred years to go again.

You won’t want to wait that long. The eclectic menu at 51 Lincoln is a bit all over the map, the way long-dreamed-of chef-owned restaurants often are. Yet it has a few dishes that merit a return trip. Chef-owner Fournier trained with several Boston stars and developed some deft tricks while cooking around town and saving up for his own place. The most notable stamps come from his seven years of cooking with Lydia Shire and from absorbing the simple Italian mastery of Daniele Baliani at Shire’s Pignoli. There are also southern and barbecue touches from Fournier’s time at the Linwood Grill in the Fenway. Sometimes he comes close to gimmickry, but his out-of-the-gate enthusiasm and commitment to fresh ingredients result in vivid flavors worth making the trek for.

Here’s an example of a dish Fournier can take to the bank, one I wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear him say outsold everything else by a wide margin when he was offering it this winter: braised short ribs with onion jam, confit tomato, and polenta fries ($24). Everybody’s been putting this ultimate spoon-tender, cold-weather comfort food on the menu, but lately short ribs have been despoiled by the too fashionable sous-vide machine, in which meat is cooked in a vacuum bag to baby-food consistency. Fournier’s have the blackened bits and chewy tendrils you want, along with the spicy, perfumed, pot-roast-in-heaven softness you dream of. The texture comes from a flour dredge and searing, and the flavor from ancho chilies and sherry. Most important, Fournier cooks the ribs for a full three and a half hours. The confit tomato and onion jam point up the sweetness of the braised meat, and the polenta fries are perfectly crisp, with a tiny cayenne kick in the coating. It’s a flavor-packed plate.

The other three-hour braise that will bring some back for hey-have-you-tried-this reasons is the pan-seared watermelon steak with confit tomato and eggplant chicharrones ($9). The watermelon flesh, cooked in cream sherry and butter, becomes compact and a bit chewy, and takes on a lurid, candied glow; the taste is suggestive of beef, or maybe foie gras. The outside is charred from the pan-sear, giving it a grilled-meat reminiscence. Fournier told me the watermelon was an accidental discovery he liked so much he had to keep. The enthusiastic servers—some of whom have followed Fournier in his various travels (he was most recently at the Metropolitan Club, down Route 9)—mentioned it first thing, and my guests wanted another order, so the chef must be on to something. But while I admire his effort to give vegetarians a dish with real interest, I found it a little silly. It isn’t meat, it isn’t fruit, it’s just odd: a stunt, kind of like mock apple pie with Ritz crackers.

Vegetables, after all, offer their own world of possibilities—and Fournier is alive to them, as shown by the eggplant chicharrones that accompany the watermelon. Featuring a garlicky, peppery dry rub with cilantro and red annatto seed that Fournier learned from Colombian colleagues and uses often, the eggplant is terrific: a scored, deep-fried, potato skin–like wedge, crisp and pillow-soft. (A plate of just those wedges would be a great appetizer with beer.)

Like the watermelon, another novelty that veered too far to the weird was the fresh lobster noodles with butter-poached lobster and champagne sauce ($18). It’s an interesting idea: cooking lobster roe into the pappardelle, coloring it a dusty pink. But the night I tried it, the gummy noodles stuck together and had scant flavor, though they were helped by a Shire-rich sauce.

Two first courses better show off Fournier’s desire to incorporate varied influences. The powerhouse appetizer of scallops and bacon “Colombia” ($11) is named for his former colleagues in Shire kitchens, and pays them homage with its cornmeal arepas and mango butter. The sea scallops are thick and good, and the big strip of bacon, marinated in that same chicharrones blend, is even better—like the short ribs, it has luscious, intense flavor. The rigatoni Bolognese ($15), immodestly called “chef’s famous,” is a recap of the meaty sauce Fournier learned from Baliani, and it went into my favorite dish on the Met Club menu.

A side dish worth ordering as an appetizer, and one you shouldn’t leave without trying, is the sweet potato pancakes with apple-garlic jam ($5), made like latkes and baked before being fried—a method with which, Fournier told me, he had long experimented. As with the short ribs, he’s found a winning formula, and should never take either dish off the menu.

The main courses are more straightforward. These dishes are substantial and generally reliable, if somewhat marred by unpredictable saltiness. The most notable accent is southern: The shrimp and grits ($19) comes with pickled vegetables and unexpectedly hot little cherry tomato–like peppers; the saffron-roasted game hen ($22) arrives with “polenta and cheese casserole”—really, white grits, rich with aged cheddar and every bit as good as mac and cheese—and sautéed Swiss chard that was absolutely fresh, though it suffered from an excess of garlic and salt.

Fournier still chooses his meat with care, as you’d expect given his years as executive chef at the Met Club, where steak is the star. The pan-seared skirt steak ($20) had so much flavor that I asked what was in the marinade, a question the chef told me he often hears from customers. “Nothing” is his proud reply. His salmon dish is another one with surprising style. Fournier briefly cures it with sugar and salt, à la gravlax, but adds coriander seeds and other spices, which stick to the skin when he sears it. It’s awfully tasty, and a solid value at $19.

Desserts are just okay, including a high, tempting-looking four-layer chocolate cake ($6) with thick, fudgy frosting but a dry texture, and a listless apple galette ($6), billed as pie rather than the open tart that it is. A pumpkin flan ($6) with a firm but not rubbery texture showed South American mastery. Best are the ice creams ($6 for three scoops) from just across the street at Ice Cream Works, especially the butter-pecan. It’s another discovery in a corner of Boston I’m almost convinced will still be there the next time I try to find it.