Let’s talk pizza.
A new favorite source isn’t a pizzeria. It’s Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar, and what chef/owner Ben Rients and cooks Jason Sawicki and Tye Sullivan have accomplished is nothing short of a revelation.
“This crust!” exclaimed my friend. I could only nod in enthusiastic agreement, having stuffed myself with what can only be described as a wonder of pizza-making engineering: a lightly blistered, marvelously chewy crust that somehow manages to be simultaneously delicate and sturdy. Seriously, they’re killing it.
Rients fell for this particular style of pizza making three years ago while on his honeymoon in Rome, and replicating that experience became Job No. 1 when he decided to open this gotta-visit Richfield restaurant.
Although he initially adhered to the strict Italian orthodoxy — beginning with a sourdough starter — something was missing. Turns out honey and milk were the fixes, and now the anchor of the tiny Lyn 65 kitchen — a massive, California-made replica of an Italian oven — is churning out wildly delicious pizzas, four varieties at a time.
Rients & Co. have an enviable talent for pulling spectacular toppings ideas out of their knit stocking caps, and then treating those ingredients with deference and imagination.
My brain will be forever embossed with the color-splashed memory of kale pesto, butternut squash, red pepper coulis and a luscious house-made ricotta, and I’ll never forgive Rients for taking the gently sweet/semi-fiery combo off the menu.
“We have to change things, so we don’t get bored,” he said with a laugh.
Fair enough. And in his defense, that restlessness yields other equally marvelous — even occasionally amusing — results.
A detail-obsessed remake of one of the most dreaded pizza genres ever, the artichoke-dip pizza, made a highly favorable impression.
Ditto an obviously affectionate homage to the gyro sandwich, which tactfully combined a robust house-made lamb sausage, a not-shy harissa and cool cucumbers, and finished with creamy, well-seasoned yogurt standing in for cheese. And I loved the pairing of succulent braised goat and subtly spicy creamed poblanos, which is happily about as far away from pepperoni as possible.
Four-star training, two-star prices
Spend even a smidgen of time with Rients talking about his menu and you’ll no doubt hear variations on the theme of “That’s because of Alex,” or “Alex taught me that.” He’s referring to his mentor and previous employer, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma.
Now that he’s signing his own paycheck, Rients is wisely avoiding the Restaurant Alma Lite label and charting his own course, funneling his four-star know-how into vastly improving the outcome of approachable, everyday fare.
Nowhere is this credo more apparent — and more successful — than in the kitchen’s peerless fried chicken.
Rients taps every tool in his fine-dining arsenal — curing the well-raised birds in buttermilk, poaching in duck fat, dredging in a gluten-free blend of rice flour and rice panko and frying in grease-averse rice oil.
The results? An astonishing study in fried chicken contrasts, with mouthwatering meat that radiates juicy, chicken-ey goodness and skin that is notably, delicately crispy. Rients doesn’t stop there, throwing in side dishes of distinction: butter- and Parmesan-laden grits, a crunchy cabbage slaw notable for the light touch of its yogurt finish and the feisty kick of its pickled jalapeños. All that, and value, too: A full order ($24) easily feeds two, and usually yields (tasty) leftovers.
Then there’s the burger. It should come as no surprise to learn that, in his quest to build a better burger, Rients leaves nothing to chance. The payoff is huge.
The thick patty, a house-cured blend of short ribs, sirloin and chuck, is fried on a flattop in its own considerable fat until it exudes a shamelessly pink juiciness that’s encased in a crusty, taste bud-teasing char.
When he reaches for the add-ons, Rients chooses with the discernment of a diamond cutter: coarse mustard, house-made mayonnaise, salty American cheese and a tomato that doesn’t taste as if it hails from the dead of winter. Oh, and the acid content in a pair of house-made pickles — tangy dill slices and an onion-laden relish — quietly cuts through the meat’s richness like a hot knife through butter.
If Rients hasn’t patented this formula, he should. Yeah, it’s that good. And when factoring in the prodigious amount of labor that goes into each burger, its $13 price tag is a steal.
Beyond bar fare
The menu makes some fairly significant forays beyond tavern food.
While the pastas are lovely and generally well-executed, it’s probably safe to say that Richfield has never witnessed seafood prepared with such finesse. A Caribbean-influenced mahi mahi, its quiet flavor enhanced with allspice and coconut milk, was seared to perfection in a cast-iron pan and finished with zesty harissa and dainty black bean fritters.
Coral-tinted, oven-roasted steelhead trout is probably foreign territory, too. The moist fish blossoms under a traditional Mediterranean treatment, with cauliflower twisted two ways (roasted, puréed), and funky Brussels sprouts playing against brightly acidic oranges and rustic black olives.
Both arrive in suburban-level portions. Rients says he’s underwriting higher food costs with his relatively low rent, a smart strategy aimed directly at his core neighborhood audience.
Soups aren’t treated as throwaways. A tomato soup is made heartier still with rosemary and toothy white beans, then garnished with decadent, bite-size grilled cheese sandwiches, an ideal winter meal.
Salads are refreshingly unacquainted with field greens. A favorite places quinoa and sweet crab front and center, then adds a New Orleans accent: deep-fried pickled okra, doing double duty as croutons.
Some dishes disappoint. No amount of lively chimichurri could add character to a dull-by-comparison New York strip. Sandwiches are perfectly fine but don’t come close to breathing the burger’s rarefied air.
Rients skips dessert. Well, sort of. The kitchen’s Lilliputian dimensions — and the budget’s similarly tight confines — don’t leave room for a pastry chef.
Instead, he’s once again borrowing from a honeymoon experience — this time in Dublin — and offering soft-serve ice cream cones to his guests, gratis. Lyn 65’s dairy-free product (a nod to the lactose-intolerant among us) has its issues — it’s oddly grainy and alarmingly sweet — but it’s a friendly gesture nonetheless.
To stay true to its we’re-here-for-Richfield pledge, the restaurant — which rarely sheds its aura of surprisingly affordability — offers a few budget-conscious specials.
On Thursday, $14 buys an ever-changing take on steaming broth and slurpy noodles. Friday means Hamm’s-battered line-caught cod with fries for $15. Saturday is splurge night, when a mesmerizingly rare and truly epic slab of prime rib (slow-roasted at a low temperature, then seared to an expert finish in that high-heat pizza oven), served with all the right embellishments, goes for $28.
The youthful, nothing-fancy setting has a do-it-yourself vibe, one that I’d like to think intentionally echoes the paneled rec rooms that surely grace the surrounding Eisenhower-era ramblers and Cape Cods.
Be forewarned: The volume level feels stuck on “loud.” Here’s hoping a recent round of fixes have softened the room’s challenging acoustics.
My favorite seats are at the roomy bar, a perch for watching mixmaster Travis Serbus and his busy crew go through their craft cocktail paces.
Be on the lookout for the poster-size image of the kitchen’s patron saint: Nicolas Cage, in sweaty, full-on “Moonstruck” mode. Rients calls it his good-luck charm. “Lucky” is how Richfield’s citizenry should consider themselves, given their proximity to this impressive newcomer.
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