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Wine Takes Center Stage at New Le Cirque

A glass wine tower rises more than 30 feet up through the middle of the restaurant

Eric Arnold
Posted: May 24, 2006

On May 31, Le Cirque will open its doors in Manhattan for the third time, the latest incarnation coming on East 58th Street in the gleaming new Bloomberg building. Only time will tell if the food lives up to the high standard previously set by proprietor Sirio Maccioni and chef Pierre Schaedelin, but one thing is already certain: At 16,000 square feet and $18 million spent on the interior, the size and scope of Le Cirque are on par with the other big restaurants of this day and age. And as if to punctuate the point that the restaurant is bigger and better, at its center is a 30-foot-tall wine tower.

"You have to have something different and attractive," said Maccioni, who opened the original Le Cirque in 1974 and quickly established it as one of the toughest tables to book in town. (He relocated it in 1997 to the Palace Hotel under the name Le Cirque 2000.) The new Le Cirque is easily the most anticipated restaurant opening in New York this year, even with the recent flurry of arrivals such as Morimoto and Buddakan, all ambitiously aiming to deliver top-quality food and wine in monster-size, opulent settings. Last week's opening party drew celebrities such as Woody Allen, Tony Bennett, Bill Cosby, Johnny Damon, Billy Joel and Martha Stewart.

Sirio Maccioni welcomes Top Chef host Katie Lee Joel and Billy Joel to Le Cirque's third incarnation.  
Le Cirque, which held Wine Spectator's Grand Award from 1986 until it closed at the end of 2004, appears to be making a similar commitment to its wine list this time around. Wine director Isabelle Husser said that she will start with about 950 selections, plus several Ports, and will add more. In total, Le Cirque will have more than 6,000 bottles on hand.

About 1,800 bottles of red wine will be displayed in the climate-controlled, glass-and-steel tower, which reaches from the ground floor of the restaurant up to the mezzanine. (The whites will be stored in a separate room, and the Champagnes will be held in other specially built storage units.) Designed by Adam Tihany, the tower alone, without the contents, cost well over $1 million to construct, claims Maccioni.

"Just the glass is expensive; it has to be very thick," explained Husser, who spent the past three years in charge of the wine program at Le Cirque's Mexico City location. Two external units will constantly circulate and cool the air inside the tower to about 50°F to 53°F, she added.

The tower will hold wines predominantly from the major regions of France, Italy, Spain, the United States and Australia, though other countries will be represented as well, including Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and even Mexico. "We will go all over the wine world," Husser said. "The most incredible thing on the list is the vertical of Opus One, 1979 to 2000, all 6-liter bottles, all signed by Mondavi and Rothschild. It's a really great collection," she added.

"Even Opus One doesn't have that anymore," Maccioni added.

Wine director Isabel Husser has assembled a 950-selection list so far.
One of the most expensive wines on the list is a 1900 Château d'Yquem for $12,000, though Husser notes that there will also be bottles priced as low as $28 to $30. She will also offer a Champagne with the restaurant's logo on the label, produced exclusively for Le Cirque by de St.-Gall.

In addition, Husser expects to offer eight whites and 12 to 15 reds by the glass, keeping the wines fresh with a machine that pumps nitrogen into the empty space in the bottles. The selections will range from well-known brands to lesser-known choices she'll pair with certain dishes, "just for the clientele to discover new wines," she said.

Husser might hope that many diners choose from the by-the-glass menu since the only way to retrieve wine from high up in the tower is by using a narrow ladder--and she admits to having a touch of vertigo at the prospect of needing to climb all the way to the top.

Though other U.S. restaurants have built similar temples to wine, such as the Tihany-designed tower at Aureole Las Vegas, up to now displays of this type have been otherwise unusual in space-crunched New York. "If you follow the trend of all the others," Maccioni says, "you're just another restaurant."

Something Le Cirque has never been and, if the wine tower is any indication, never intends to be.

Le Cirque
One Beacon Court
151 E. 58th St.
New York, NY 10022
Reservations: (212) 644-0202

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