Le Cirque 2000
The center holds firm
Sirio Maccioni will stop at nothing to make his customers happy. Maybe that's why his restaurant has been New York's center ring for more than a quarter of a century.
A man drinking Roederer Cristal for lunch wants a second helping of white truffles on his pasta; Maccioni shaves away without flinching. A party of European fashionistas light cigarettes; Maccioni placates their neighbors with complimentary desserts. Henry Kissinger is welcomed with a caviar-topped potato pancake; a food critic sitting nearby gets the same, with twice as much caviar.
Welcome to Le Cirque 2000, a restaurant as colorful and varied as the city itself, where owner Maccioni, his sons and staff juggle high society, new money and awestruck tourists without ever losing their urbane air of amusement-tinged politesse. It is not a democratic place, nor is it trendy, nor does the cuisine strive to be cutting-edge. But anyone who wants to know how the game of New York City is played will find Le Cirque 2000 the perfect place to learn the rules and see the stars in action.
Le Cirque opened on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1974; it was a small room filled with old money. As time went on, exceptional chefs added exciting food to the equation, and Maccioni built a cellar deep in Italian, French and American wines. In 1997, Maccioni moved the restaurant to midtown Madison Avenue, spending $6 million to install a futuristic circus decor inside the opulent 19th century Villard Houses that front the Palace Hotel.
Although Maccioni is happy to serve society ladies steamed asparagus and grilled salmon, his skilled culinary team can satisfy any appetite (the menu offers more than 40 dishes). Chef Sottha Khunn trained with luminaries Alain Senderens and Alain Passard in Paris; he seems happiest preparing dishes of intense purity, such as the minimalist dynamite of foie gras stuffed ravioli in beef consomm. But he can also slice white truffles over tender sweetbreads and crispy pig's feet with cranberry beans and wilted greens to create a soul-warming rustic feast. A five-course tasting menu ($90) is the best way to sample Khunn's many talents.
But save room for dessert. Pastry chef Jacques Torres has won every award in his field, published a best-selling cookbook and stars in his own television series. His tour de force variations on themes of lemon or apple are ravishing, but even simple bombolini (cream-filled raised doughnuts) leave you pining for more. The tiny chocolates that end the meal almost force you to drink a second cup of coffee, just to savor them and the sheer extravagance of the restaurant and the dining experience.
That extravagance extends to the wine list, which has significantly improved since Ralph Hersom, formerly with Moose's in San Francisco, joined the restaurant as wine director (ably assisted by Paul Altuna and Bernard Sun). Hersom has filled in gaps, added older vintages and secured some of California's cult reds to satisfy an unquenchable thirst among his wine-savvy clientele. Though there are many wines under $50, Hersom also currently offers all five Bordeaux first-growths in 1961 and '82, nine bottlings of Williams Selyem Pinot Noir and five vintages of Spain's Bodegas Vega Sicilia Unico back to 1968.
Then there's the decor: Think Times Square. A hubbub of color, contrast and crowd-buzz manages to harmonize two visions of excess, one from the 19th century Gilded Age, the other from our own fin de sicle. Aluminum, leather and velvet in Crayola colors juxtaposed against dark-stained wood and gilded carvings create an exuberant luxury that is stunning at first sight, amusing on the second visit and, finally, surprisingly comfortable.
Just as some people miss the old Times Square, others lament the bygone Le Cirque. But New York never stands still. Today it is an international city creating its new image with irony as well as imagination. Le Cirque 2000 is a perfect reflection of this evolution: Without lowering its standards, it has opened its doors wider than ever. It remains the quintessential New York dining experience, the table of choice for those who are hungry for experience as well as for food.
LE CIRQUE 2000
Address 455 Madison Ave., New York 10022
Telephone (212) 303-7788
Fax (212) 303-7712
Web site www.lecirque.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Saturday; dinner, daily
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club, Carte Blanche
Wine Spectator Award Grand Award since 1986