So Near, So Far

Lincoln Tap House's reach exceeds its grasp

Potential is defined as latent qualities or abilities that may lead to future success. Which is a good capsule description of Lincoln Tap House. In terms of accomplishments and opportunities, it has plenty of both. The question is, can this local pub move from good to great?

A key ingredient to success in the restaurant business is location, and in that respect, LTH couldn't be sitting any prettier. The historic gold revolving doors off Prospect Ave. create a beautiful entrance. Unfortunately, the gilded face drops away quickly inside, where the first thing you encounter is the back entrance to the restaurant. Without any clear idea of where to go, I meandered through the dining room to a host stand, where a disheveled staffer greeted me and asked if I had a reservation. Looking over the just-opened, nearly empty restaurant, I informed him I did not. As I requested, I was seated in the bar area.

This gave me a chance to take in the décor, oak floors that complement earth tones and rich wall colors, creating an elegant yet comfortable ambience. A second entrance from Tower City provides easy access to the Horseshoe Casino. The long bar, which faces a window looking out on Prospect, has 36 tap handles offering a global "who's who" of craft beers. It would be nice to see more local selections, but there's no arguing with what's there.

The far-reaching whiskey and wine selections are equally impressive, and should be enough to satisfy both fickle business travelers and high-stakes gamblers. The cocktail menu is obviously designed with craft items in mind, though it falls short of whiskey-inspired libations.

On both of my visits, the bartenders were phenomenal, seasoned pros who know how to shake a cocktail as well as serve properly. Beyond the technical aspects of the service, they had what no manager can teach — personality. It's easy to see why LTH has attracted such a solid lunch crowd. Service, after all, is 50 percent of running a successful restaurant.

The other 50 percent — the food — needs to find an identity and better execution at LTH. The menu is deep, offering starters, salads, burgers, pizza and entrees. Already a fan, from previous visits, of the restaurant's barbecue ribs, I ordered them with great expectations, and was not disappointed. The slow and low cooking process used on the pork ribs resulted in the meat falling completely away from the bone. The sauce had a pleasant smoky and sweet balance. Along with LTH's service, this dish is the restaurant's strongest selling point.

The ribs were a nice segue to the sesame-crusted calamari, which were a letdown. Not only were they too small and drowned by the breading, but they lacked tentacles. In fairness, the sesame breading is an original approach, the chili plum dipping sauce was a nice touch, and the wasabi cocktail was downright awesome. With larger and whole calamari, this dish would be a huge hit.

On to the pizza. With every gastro-pub known to man trying to master this Neapolitan classic, I decided to keep it simple by ordering a Meat Junky. Upon arrival, it was clear that it was another near-miss. The dough, albeit fresh not frozen, was over-portioned for the nine-inch pizza, overwhelming the toppings and sauce. The finished product looked like a giant pizza bubble that had forced all the toppings to the center and swallowed the sauce. More than anything, it resembled a large pizza roll. All of the components were there — the dough was tasty, the meats were good (especially the salami), and the little sauce that I was able to taste was properly sweet. But a great opportunity was missed without proper portion control.

Working my way through the menu, I tried the Cuban sandwich, which could more properly be named the Cuban Sandwich Crisis. Almost everything on this dish was a miss. The bread was not Cuban, but a hoagie. The hoagie was grilled rather than pressed, a cardinal sin. The roast pork was dry, and the ham tasted store-bought. Even the simplest of ingredients, the mustard and pickles, did not work. Obviously overthinking this classic, LTH serves it with a whole-grain mustard instead of a simple yellow brand. And the pickles are sweet instead of dill, robbing the Cuban of an essential taste. A final knife in the heart: The fries were cold. This dish needs to be reworked ASAP, or dropped.

At the suggestion of the server, I tried the Prime Rib Philly. The in-house shaved prime rib was well-seasoned and held its texture. Even though the sandwich was moist, I would have liked some Au Jus. The horseradish was right on the money, along with the onions, mushrooms, and Swiss cheese. Alarmingly, the ticket used by the kitchen to prepare the dish was buried at the bottom of the cold pile of sweet potato fries, a poor ending to a dish that otherwise tasted good.

All in all, the hits outweigh the misses at Lincoln Tap House. And judging by the crowds on both visits, diners are mostly happy. With some adjustments and belt-tightening in the menu, this star-in-the-making could realize its full potential.