Sunday, September 30, 2012


 Unless the kitchen has been entirely overhauled in the past 192 hours, Pete Wells is entirely off his rocker.  But I won't have this review be rebuttal to his New York Times critique: absurd and spurious rants fade with time.   I assume that his cry for attention will swiftly wither away.  The Maccioni family's Le Cirque, helmed now by chef Olivier Reginensi, continues strong in its game.  Now, if Pete prefers Nintendo to Yahtzee, that is his own defect.  But this place is doing exactly what it wants to be doing, and it is doing it exceptionally well.

Sirio himself was sitting aside the maitre d's podium as I arrived, with a pleasant smirk - perhaps concealing some of the pain of last week's review, but at the same time, including a characteristic content as the dining room filled up, even during this typically slow period of the Jewish high holidays.  My guest and I were seated side by side, in order to admire the grand and lofty dining room- it's arching ceilings swathed in a warm light that will make you better looking than you are.  The waitstaff, too... or perhaps the Maccioni brothers really are that good looking.  We began with a complimentary amuse-bouche: a translucent swath of pristine hamachi spiked with an aromatic spritz of tart lemon and thinly sliced radishes, small pungent peppercorns and a tiny sprig of profoundly aromatic basil.  It was not revolutionary.  There was no gastronomic sleight of hand.  It was, however, exemplary.  And this set the stage for the meal at Le Cirque.  They are not striving to challenge your palate, but to satisfy it, with a mantra of luxury and voluptuous grace.  That's not to say that there might not involve some tweezers or foams: the platings are as gorgeous as the setting.  But you'll not be served molecular minutia.  This is Le Cirque, and abundance is part of the glamour.

A supremely fresh dice of unctuous tuna tartare sat atop creamy crushed avocados, molded into a dense, squat column that made it easy to incorporate the cool layers into each bite, garnished with a julienne of crisp hearts of palm.  Even the little dots of creme fraiche garnishing the periphery showed love: the sauce verte formed into tiny hearts atop the white buttons of cream.  From the special section
 of seasonal appetizers, a sunchoke veloute seemed a pointed affront to any former assertions about "lacking flavor" with its heady shroud of parmesan foam.  In fact, it was (if anything) a bit too salty.  But salty suits me just fine, and by the by the time its heat dissipated from its searingly hot arrival, the umami-rich foam had incorporated itself into the earthy puree for a harmonious liaison.

Entrees are formidable in size, in part a statement of bounty, but also a justification of the price tags.  Le Cirque bucks the bird-food trend with voluptuous portions, such that delicate appetites might enjoy leftovers the next day, and the suits and expense accounts will appreciate each substantial course.  They could, in fact, even downsize the entrees a tad and shave off a few dollars too, but sometimes abundance adds to the decadence.  And nothing says decadent like lobster, this one roasted from Maine, sweet, meaty knuckles piled atop tender baby artichokes and chewy, nutty chanterelles.  Its luxuriously buttery sauce is enriched with lobster coral (roe) and tomatoes: a lusty classic.  Again, lacking flavor..?  This lobster was good enough to just sit on a paper plate with a wedge of lemon... but the dish as whole could have illustrated "flavorful" in the dictionary.
 Wild halibut was a verdant contrast, perhaps a touch less decadent but just as noteworthy.  Pooled in an herby emerald broth, the meaty filet sluiced with a cippoline marmalade and surrounded by a robust selection of roasted shellfish: big clams, tiny squid and a gratineed razor clam speared atop.   Firm, oven-crisped peanut potatoes in golden and purple nudged between the collops of calamari and open-shelled clams.  We ordered a side dish of seasonal mixed vegetables, which was not only wholly unnecessary, but the only dish that underwhelmed.  Sweet snow peas and carrots, and mildly bitter turnips with onions arrived in a gleaming silver crock, but unless you're such a regular at restaurants such as these and simply need vegetable augmentation, they were superfluous at best, generic at worst.  We might've been better off with a sautee of mushrooms, but that seemed redundant given the chanterelles in the lobster.

Anyways, at that point, we were ready for desserts, and deciding between the array of French classics went more smoothly with a Maccioni's suggestion, so we opted for a pear William souffle and a traditional Iles Flottante.  The sugar-dusted souffle rose majestically from the bounds of its ramekin, big enough for three, and so feathery-light its small scoop of vanilla gelato might have been its earthly anchor.  Freshly diced pears in a tart compote brought a refreshing tang.
The "Floating Islands" are three marshmallowy meringues striated in caramel, afloat in a pool of soupy creme anglaise, studded with ripe berries of the blue, black and rasp- varieties.  Of course, sweets needn't stop there, as a full battery of friandises arrived: perfumey fruit gelees, various chocolates, tiny raspberry mille-feuilles that taste like how you wish the original Pop-Tarts ever would have, and those swoon-worthy homemade caramels, individually wrapped and just waiting to be stealthfully stashed in your pockets or purse- there simply is not capacity enough to do justice to them all.

As I left Le Cirque, giddy with wine and nostalgia and content, I felt much more important than I actually am.  And then, I wondered how Wells could possibly have had such a conflicting experience.  I too, have had my share of restaurant disappointments: when I blindly segued the buzz about some trendy place in Brooklyn, or jumped prematurely to some celebrity chef's new hot spot.  Not living up to one's expectations is one thing.  These places I wanted to be better than they were... not something completely different than what they are.  I feel Mr. Wells wanted to make this restaurant into something it doesn't want to be: some new-fangled Atera-esque destination.  Le Cirque established itself almost forty years ago, and while of course its food has been updated and modernized, it has always specialized in fine French cuisine (with a bit a playfulness, of course... it is "the circus" after all).  And, according to the Maccionis, it will continue to do exactly that.  Because, simply, it does it.  And it does it very, very well.

One Beacon Court
151 East 58th Street
tel.  (212)644-0202

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