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One of New York's most beloved restaurants, owned, orchestrated and presided over by Sirio Maccioni has reopened at the Bloomberg Building, also called One Beacon Court but better known as 151 East 58th Street. The cirque extraordinaire, updated for dining in this new virtual millennium, has so much on offer that we confidently can declare: Le Cirque offers the finest nouvelle vague haute cuisine in today's New York. From the moment you enter the buoyant dining room—or perhaps divert to the opulent glass bar at right—you are transported into a parallel universe, where seemingly all the details have been refined, revised, and relaunched to what we dare say might just be the fabled utopian Schlarraffenland, where no gastronomic fantasy goes unfulfilled, and no less than seven types of bread are on offer.
An undulating wall forms the backbone of the 95-seat dining room, replete with clever details that guarantee—as was much speculated—that no diners would be banished to Siberia in version 3.0 of Le Cirque. Consequently, for those without full view of the vaunted dining room, mirrors reflecting on the dramatic action as well as small windows offering framed vantages of the kitchen tantalize the diner. With a wine list that spans continents, vintages, vineyards and surely offers something for every palate, it immediately becomes clear: every sort of diner fits in. That is, everyone who can afford this cirque. In assessing the disparate groups (elderly ladies who lunch; young couples celebrating; power suits desiring the quick business prix-fixe; gastronomes; culinary students; casual Californians; moneyed South Americans; European tourists; and everyday aficionados of fine dining), master impresario Sirio Maccioni et fils now achieve their greatest success: to be all things to all people. Witness, for example, Alsatian-born chef Pierre Schaedelin's updated appetizers, clearly influenced by the vegetable deity Martha Stewart, from whose service he returned. A dish innocently titled "Sweet English Peas and Wild Mushrooms" exceeds any known preparation, a trifecta of dishes served atop a clever woven mat on a silver platter that looks a bit like pressed rice noodles: a chilled pea soup with chanterelles of superb quality; a casserole of tender peas with morels; and utterly divine pea ravioli with porcini. Consider the Spring Vegetable Casserole, featuring ten baby vegetables prepared and arranged with such care that one can visualize a tiny garden attended by servile dwarves who carefully contemplate the precise alignment of each morsel. Delight in the Warm Maine Lobster Salad (weighing in at a rather dear $39) that nevertheless pleases the palate so much more than nearly every other lobster dish we have sampled from Maine to southern France. On presentation alone, it is worth the price. For it is in one sense the happy version of the Brothers Grimm, but in another the new American version of a well-known French culinary paradise known as Cockaigne, where in the land of plenty no childlike fantasy goes unfulfilled. The colors dazzle, the creative shape of the specially-designed porcelain dishes tease, and one's voice begins to quaver: Peas and wild mushrooms indeed!
As one's eyes greedily dart about the dining room, with its 16,000 square feet so designed as to maximize diagonal sight lines, yet refined enough to inhibit the voyeuristic tendencies we all aspire to in this new media paradise, neither the noise level nor the diverse array of waiters and service staff interfere with the ongoing circus. Patrons come and go in successive waves, and the finest Bordeaux may be found at a table adjacent to that beloved American summer drink, iced tea. In short order, southern California living has caught up with New York. And for those unable or unwilling to deal with making a reservation, the oceanographer and the forester can meet at the bar, where a temporary menu of mythic proportions can be found: an excellent selection of meat dishes includes Baby Lamb Shoulder; Beef Short Ribs; T-Bone; Roasted Duck Breast; Pork Chop; as well as several options for two such as Jarret de Veau, Côte de Boeuf, Chateaubriand. The fish dishes include Tuna; Halibut; Sardines Niçoise; Salmon, Snapper, Flounder, and Lobster. Did dining at a bar ever before include such choices, such opulence, such theater? Where enormous vases (think Ming Dynasty-sized glass vessels) groan with vibrant flowers, where dozens of gorgeous glass bottles feature prettily-colored liquids, where a flat screen TV as well as 27-foot steel-and-glass wine tower (perhaps along with your date) vie for your attention. For those distracted, bewitched, or bedazzled by today's myriad spectacles and diversions, this is your place; not even those inseparable from their BlackBerry devices can escape this dignified yet frenetic scene. And even a daily special of rotating classics (think Osso Buco, Bouillabaisse, Couscous Royale, even Rabbit) is designed to lure you back again and anon. Accordingly, just as the bar scene shrieks New Millennium, so too has the restaurant's website been recharged in version 3.0: scan the menus in advance, yet still marvel at the grand concoctions revealed once the domes are lifted from your entrées. Voilà! Even in the Internet age, there are still many surprises in store.
Then there are the main courses: we hear much these days about ingredient sourcing, special preparations, reductions, and molecular gastronomy techniques developed by Fernán Adrià (more on him later). Accordingly, no such details have been overlooked, and dishes such as Steamed Mediterranean Branzino, a modest fish delicately stuffed with shrimp, octopus and calamari, along with star anise and saffron bouillabaisse jus, fennel and zucchini flowers hits all the right notes. A Mozambique Langoustine—did my shellfish really swim along the coast of southeastern Africa?—hits so many notes (exotic, triumphal, post-colonial, curry-and-citrus). The Long Island Muscovy Duck, orange honey glazed magret and leg confit, carrots, sugar snaps and baby turnips jus aigre-doux offers the finest examples of this bird, with meat that literally falls off the bone as well as medium-rare slices perfectly cooked. We do not exaggerate in saying that neither in France nor Switzerland have we had duck this well-prepared. Even on the most humid summer day—the majestic Colorado Rack of Lamb, its crispy flank redolent and surrounded by vegetables, or the Florida Red Snapper crusted with seven herbs and cashew nuts along with green tomato chutney—your voyage spans continents, culinary traditions and cultures. Which is exactly the point.
Indeed no diner—after imbibing the appropriate wine or enjoying such savory dishes—would want to miss the utterly brilliant desserts of pastry chef Regis Monges. For while you may have sampled the genius of Wylie Dufresne, or perhaps the great French desserts of Midtown's finest gastronomers, the downtown dessert bars, or even the work of escapees from the French Culinary Institute, absolutely nothing prepares you for Le Cirque's latest confections. With a dessert menu divided into classics and New Signature Desserts, we suggest you opt for several; there is no harm in doing so. And while you might initially feel some shock at lunch entrées in the mid-30s, dinner entrées in the mid-40s, and desserts at $14, you do understand that such level of perfection has its price.
At one lunch, we had the good fortune of peeping into the kitchen through one of the discretely-placed windows, certainly a far more astute adaptation of this current fad for open kitchens that protect the chef from diner with thick glass than at Vongerichten's 66 in Tribeca. We want to see the artisans at work, but some mystery must remain. Here we espied the ubiquitous blowtorch finishing the Crème Brûlée. We saw pastry cream being piped. Animated but muted discussions transpired. And then our Chocolate Soufflé arrived, prepared to perfection with a small boat of chocolate sauce to the left and an exquisite ovoid of chocolate ice cream in the middle. How refreshing not to be given directives as to how we should enjoy our dessert! We simply delved into the soufflé, then child-like poured the sauce in the middle. And with those heavenly Provençal Figs in red wine with mint, accompanied by a delightful almond cake and fig ice cream, did we detect some gold leaf? Then the pièce de résistance, the apotheosis of this meal, was the Pot au Feu, another dish whose name dramatically understates the craftsmanship. Here you see true virtuosity at work, and not just because of Monges' experience at Le Cirque in Mexico. Not even devotees of Adrià would fail to be impressed by this 'pot' (a copper vessel) that arrives on a stand with much 'feu' (dry ice that reacts with liquid to puff wispy clouds across your white-linen tablecloth). Polynesia meets France: into this chocolate cup, you dig as an archaeologist might deep in a fondue pot for buried treasure, finding passion fruit sorbet, small pieces of mango in a compote, coconut ice cream, along with a Le Cirque "Mounds Bar" (chocolate with coconut filling). Were that not enough—indeed it is never enough—the meal ends with the famous dish of petit fours that also have a fascinating riff: A tiny pâte de fruit; a miniature pâte à choux swan; a macaron; and a variety of others that suggest mini-patisserie is the wave of the future in this calorie-conscious age. For despite the horreur wreaked in this age of Dr. Atkins' and the South Beach diets, the perceived twin evils of cream and butter seem banished to another realm. A pity, perhaps, yet the virtuosity of this triad—Maccioni, Schaedelin, and Monges—is their uncanny ability to please and to delight. In that respect, we expect this incarnation of Le Cirque to vastly exceed its precursors.
french culinary institute, jean georges, le cirque, pierre schaedelin, Regis Monges, sirio maccioni, vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne
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Posted on 6/29/2006
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