It had been quite a while since I had last been to Le Cirque, one of the legendary restaurants of NYC culinary history. I was there a few years ago for a party during the StarChefs ICC, but the last time I had actually had a regular meal with the Maccionis was when the restaurant was Le Cirque 2000 and it was in an entirely different location. I had taken my wife then to celebrate a milestone birthday. Since then I had always had reason to go to newer restaurants when visiting NYC and had taken it for granted. However, when Pete Wells recently reviewed it and knocked it down to just one star from the 3 it had received from Frank Bruni back in 2008, I became curious and had to see for myself. Had it really fallen that far? In town for another StarChefs Congress, I made it a point to revisit this classic that was home to the likes of Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Lomonaco, Rick Moonen, Jacques Torres, Francois Payard, Sottha Khunn and a host of other great chefs. I went, accompanied by my sister, and sat at the kitchen table. Where would be a better place to witness first hand whether or not the kitchen “had given up” as had been suggested in the Wells review?
In its youth, le Cirque was a trendsetter and generator of dishes that became classics. It was there that Pasta Primavera first saw the light of day. The same for Creme Brulée and a number of other dishes that became ubiquitous in restaurants throughout the United States, if not the world. Yet, it had been a while since the famed kitchen has been known as a significant trendsetter. The kind of creativity that Le Cirque had been known for was no longer influential, overtaken at first by the world of Vanguardist Modernism, which had become the darling of the gourmet set, followed by the current vogue of New Naturalism and the ever-growing presence of Asian, particularly Japanese, influences in Western high end kitchens. These are all styles of cooking that have certainly piqued my own interest and have given me great pleasure. That said, my tastes are eclectic and I enjoy all styles of cooking, so long as they are well prepared and delicious. While the style of restaurant that Le Cirque had come to represent was not at present the style that currently most intrigues me, I was still disheartened to read the Wells review. I believe that there is plenty of room in this world for all sorts of restaurants, so long as they are good at what they do. If Wells was right and the food at Le Cirque had slipped to where he claimed, I would have considered it a a major loss.
The singular pleasure of the kitchen table at Le Cirque (and most other restaurants that offer one) is the feeling that the kitchen is cooking just for you. We were seated at a banquette next to the entrance of the kitchen with a full view of everything happening within. The kitchen was quiet and devoid of excess motion or noise, and one thing I am able to agree with Pete Wells’ review is the quality of the service. He writes:
And there is, above all, the exemplary dining room staff. Le Cirque practices a style of service that many people now regard as stiff and fussy. They wouldn’t say that if they’d seen the servers at Le Cirque in action. Over decades on the job, they have learned their movements and courtesies down in their bones. The tone of a restaurant is set at the top, and in this one the formal, old-fashioned way of tending to a table is softened by a warmth that feels genuine and a pride in doing things properly that can never be faked.
Our service was indeed superb, from the busboys to the waiter to the sommelier.
Where my experience differed from Wells (and surely he was every bit as “known” to Le Cirque as I was and certainly a more “important” diner), was the quality of the dining. Wells found there to be much “lacking” with the food, stating, “The kitchen gave the impression that it had stopped reaching for excellence and possibly no longer remembered what that might mean.” For my sister and I, this couldn’t have been further from what we experienced.
My sister and I chose to have the kitchen prepare a menu for us and to pair wines with each course. While Wells and his dining companions almost certainly just ordered off the regular menu, what we did was not extraordinary for a restaurant like this, which is known for accommodating special requests. I enjoy letting the kitchen choose my menu, as I would often miss some of the best dishes a restaurant has if I simply ordered what I knew or what sounded “good” to me. At a restaurant like Le Cirque, it is best to let them simply do what they do best, which they tend to do very, very well.We were greeted with a lovely glass of prosecco each once we sat at our table.
We opened with an amuse of a salmon rillette wrapped in a crepe with salmon roe on top along with fried parsley and watercress. I have experienced on more than one occasion a fast start of a brilliant amuse raising expectations that were subsequently dashed. This amuse was not brilliant, but it was tasty. In the back of my mind, though, I harbored a concern that perhaps Wells might have been right after all. I need not have worried.
To stretch our tasting further and still give us full servings, they gave my sister and I a different dish with each course. We, of course, shared each dish. The first course, served to my sister, was the Daurade Ceviche with salad of hearts of palm, cilantro, aji amarillo, avocado and carrot. This was surprisingly and pleasantly spicy and flavorful and immediately gave notice that this dinner was not going to be “lacking” anything, flavor least of all.
My plate of Tuna Tartare with crushed avocado, heart of palm julienne and sauce verte was also well flavored. The dish may not have been cutting edge, but it was no less delicious because of that. While I enjoy eating new and exciting dishes as much as anyone, I also have a place at my table for classic deliciousness and this combination applies here. Both dishes were very well executed.
The first course dishes were both well matched with this crisp, bright, mineral-rich and very tasty Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine de la Chaise.
Next up were the soups. Both were rich, flavorful veloutes. My sister received the Chestnut and Pheasant Veloute with Foie Gras Royale, a mousse of foie gras with the rich, creamy soup poured over the top.
I was served the sumptuous sunchoke velouté with Parmesan (sic) foam. The cooks highlighted the flavors and textures of both. What these soups may have lacked in contemporary inventiveness, they made up for with classic good taste.
The veloutés were accompanied by this lovely, bright 20111 rosé from the Cotes de Provence. It was an ideal choice for the rich veloutés with enough acidity to cut through the richness and plenty of flavor of its own.
This risotto first made its appearance on the Le Cirque menu during the Daniel Boulud years of 1986-1992. This is the kind of luxurious dish that the restaurant developed its Franco-Italian reputation with and for good reason – it was simply delicious. Made with vialone nano rice,a lobster-infused Sauce Americaine and tomalley butter, I could detect no loss of interest here.
The other dish served was also delicious and a bit more unusual, incorporating San Daniele Prosciutto, ricotta, lettuce and crispy baby artichokes and veal sauce. Both of these dishes were well prepared with excellent technique, vibrant flavors and a variety of appropriate textures.
California Chardonnays often have a tendency to being over-oaked, heavy on the vanilla and fat body. This one was not quite so heavy with the oak and the vanilla. It had good acidity as well as pleasant citrus notes. It did a fine job accompanying the pasta and the risotto.
For the next course, my sister and I each received a glass of 2009 Cuvée Margot Bourgogne from Olivier LeFlaive. A relatively simple and light pinot noir, the wine nevertheless made a good match with our dishes.
Her dish? None other than the legendary Boulud dish – Paupiette of Black Bass “Le Cirque.” A wonderful dish like this only goes out of style when delicious and elegantly prepared food goes out of style. The roasted bass was wrapped in crispy, paper thin sheets of potato and laid atop a bed of butter braised leeks and drizzled with a sauce built around Rocca di Frasinello, a Super-Tuscan from the Maremma. In Boulud’s original, the sauce was made with Barolo. I’d never had Boulud’s version, but this dish was wonderful. It variety of textures and depth of flavor justified its status as a true classic. I enjoyed Roasted Maine Lobster with baby artichokes, Nova Scotia chanterelles and coral emulsion. In my excitement and wine-induced haze, I somehow failed to photograph the dish, but I did not fail to appreciate it. With good ingredients and execution, how could it fail to please? It was luxe and it was very, very good!
From the sauce to the glass, we continued with another Super-Tuscan, this the 2009 Poggio alla Guardia to accompany the meat course. It was rich and tasty.
The duck breast served to my sister was perfectly cooked, served simply with black mission figs, turnips, creamy polenta and a sauce made with a reduction of mission figs and duck jus. This was not a dish for those seeking only the newest and hottest contemporary dishes, but it was one to satisfy any fan of this waterfowl. It was clean, elegant and delicious. Even better was the dish of Veal Sweetbreads Meuniere with Swiss chard that arrived in front of me. Once again, I managed to photograph my sister’s plate, but somehow forgot to do mine. This was truly a pity, as these sweetbreads were as wonderful as I’ve ever had. A large portion, these were lovingly crisped on the exterior and pillowy soft inside. The citrus of the Meuniere cut through the richness of the dish like a laser. This was my favorite dish of the night and a dish that I would return for again and again.
As a prelude to dessert we enjoyed a plate of cheese. While not quite at the level of the finest tables of Europe, we were offered a nice selection of French and Italian cheeses including (clockwise from 7PM) from milder to most intense, a chabichou (soft, lightly aged goat’s milk from France), Moringhello di Bufala (slightly firm buffalo’s milk from Italy), Fleur de Maquis (semi-soft sheep’s milk from Corsica), Epoisses (stinky cow’s milk cheese from France) and Roquefort (crumbly sheep’s milk blue from France). The cheeses were all in good shape and delicious. They were accompanied by Champagne grapes and candied walnuts. While not at the extreme edge of cheesy greatness, this was an enjoyable, well maintained plate representing a nice variety of milks and styles.
The port was a classically good pairing with the cheeses. A port like this does a fine job without breaking the bank.
The desserts came to the table all together in a flurry of sugary decadence. The Apple Composition with puréed apple, sautéd apples, crispy apple chips and pecan ice cream was served to my sister. This had good apple flavor, but was a bit too sweet for my preference.
I received the Milk Chocolate Bar with caramel ice cream, crisped rice and gold leaf. This was also a bit on the sweet side for my preference, but both desserts were well executed and flavorful.
As it was 30 years since the first service of Créme Brûlée, inspired by Crema Catalana during the 1982 Soccer World Cup, we were served one as well. Few desserts have become as ubiquitous over time as this and it was as good as ever. A well made Crema Catalana “Frenchified” with vanilla and served in a shallow oval ramekin, the Maccionis made the dish their own with brûléed brown sugar on top, providing the now familiar crisp, caramelized skin that over the years has been so much fun to break through.
My sister and I were each poured a different dessert wine by Le Cirque Sommelier and Wine Director Paul Altuna.
My sister received a lovely Vin santo from the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. Its sweetness was braced by delightful acidity and its structure was one of great depth.
My pouring was a delightful pairing of the fizzy Brachetto d’Acqui from Giacomo Bologna called “Braida.” The 2007 vintage was sweet, but with impeccable balance. It was a superb match for the chocolate and possibly my favorite wine of the evening. I will look for this again.
The mignardises, as one might expect after reading this report, were classic in nature featuring such miniature delights as a poppy-seed cake, fruit gelées, financiers, cannelets, macarons and chocolate bon bons, all of which were competently prepared.
Little did I realize at the time of this meal, the extent of stress that Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi must have been feeling that night. The Wells review had already been out for several weeks, but the very next day following this meal, it was reported that Reginensi was going to be replaced as Executive Chef. I was saddened immensely to read that. He started as Executive Chef in 2011 when former Executive Chef Craig Hopson left to pursue other opportunities. After the meal that I had, I scratched my head as to why. Clearly, it was a result of the poor review by Pete Wells, but given the meal and the experience that I had, I couldn’t fathom it. Sure, I was known by the restaurant and treated exceptionally well, but certainly Pete Wells was known to the restaurant and treated at least as well as I was.
Wells wrote that the service was top notch. I agree. I also agreed that the restaurant had agreeably lost some of its legendary snootiness and was more accessible and comfortable for those such as myself who are not from NYC’s Upper East Side. But I never got the sense that the kitchen was out of whack or “not trying.” Not only did they appear to be trying (perhaps a result of the review?), they were certainly succeeding. Our meal was simply topnotch in every respect – but one – that being that it was not on the cutting edge of cooking.
At one time, Le Cirque was arguably the greatest innovator in NYC and the United States. That history of creativity and its location with its wealthy clients who continued to ask for the same dishes, eventually made it more and more difficult to innovate. In addition, the very style of restaurant that Le Cirque came to symbolize was no longer the model for innovation in the contemporary food world. The good news about this? It really doesn’t make a difference in the big, wide world in which we live and eat. Le Cirque remains a wonderful restaurant to enjoy a meal of classics with new dishes built along its classic style thrown in for good measure. Not every top restaurant needs to be an innovator or cutting edge.
Le Cirque has earned its right to be itself and should be celebrated for what it is as well as what it was. Le Cirque has always been a one of a kind restaurant, but never more so than today, when precious few restaurants with its style of service and cuisine survive. It would be ever the pity to lose Le Cirque and its wonderful experience. The food may no longer be cutting edge or influential, but it remains as delicious as always. It is not the kind of restaurant experience that I would wish to have exclusively, but then there is no one type of restaurant experience that I would want exclusively. I am happy that there is still a Le Cirque in NYC with its history, its style, its hospitality and its delicious food, just as I am happy that there is a Le Bernardin, a Mission Chinese, an Empellon Cocina and a Blanca amongst others. They are all different and they are all wonderful in their own ways. Vive la difference!