Best Thing We Ate
One Night at Le Cirque: A Millennial's Diary
I had never been to Le Cirque, the iconic UES restaurant that in its heyday, was the epicenter of both culinary technique and opulence in New York City. Just about every great NYC chef has come through this kitchen at some point, from Alain Sailhac to Daniel Boulud to Terrance Brennan. Since the Maccioni family - who founded the restaurant in 1974 - recently installed a new chef, the 35-year-old French-Belgian Raphael Francois, it seemed like a good time to pay a visit. So how does a food journalist who came of age in the Momofuku era analyze a restaurant like Le Cirque, where dinner is theater and service is formal and gracious?
Well, it's complicated. The night we dined at Le Cirque, the godfather himself, Sirio Maccioni was in the house to greet us at the front door, as well as his son Marco, who is the consummate high-end maitre'd. You're made to feel very, very special while dining here - your chair is pulled out and in every time you get up, and a staff member will escort you to the restroom if you can't find it. Some people might find this kind of constant attention fussy or smothering, but it's something that diners of my generation seldom experience, which made just about every aspect of the evening special and novel. Restaurants have become more and more casual, which I don't resent, as I think this level of pampering on a daily basis would probably grow tiresome. But for one night, Le Cirque's graceful service is a welcome change. Another bonus: the show. Each dish had its own special tableside presentation (langoustine was lifted from a steaming cocotte onto my plate with chopsticks, etc.) and I had a moment of glee upon seeing a server flambé a dish tableside just a few feet over - a rare experience for diners of my generation. Le Cirque is like historical theater for a food lover like me.
Le Cirque has gone through its share of chefs in the last few years including Olivier Reginensi, Craig Hopson and Christophe Bellanca. Raphael's cooking skews more Northern French and Belgian (reflective of his background) than chefs past. The 4 and 6-course tasting menus ($125-$165) feature all of Francois' new dishes, while a few classic items remain on the a la carte menu. Francois's meat and fish courses were my favorites, particularly the squab with mandarin orange, endive and dandelion greens. The squab was expertly seasoned and its skin was a crispy golden brown, a perfect foil to the mandarin-based sauce and bitter endive. The dish felt very classic French, in a comforting way, like something we would have made in culinary school with a bit of a twist.
As the kitsch of 60s-era French and Italian restaurants has come back in style (see: Carbone, Gallaghers relaunch), Le Cirque has a new selling point: its novelty. While it's clear that Le Cirque still has its share of challenges (filling up the dining room on weeknights, selling food at this very high price point), there's something to appreciate about its old-school approach to dining. There's a reason why new restaurants are harkening back to this bygone era - that fuss that once felt outdated, is a refreshing change of pace for a new generation.