When you live in New York, one of the most exhilarating, highly competitive restaurant cities in the world, you pretty much get used to establishments coming and going. That’s why it’s hard not to have a certain amount of affection for those that have stood the test of time, like Delmonico’s, The Rainbow Room (set to relaunch this fall), Tavern on The Green and the forty-year-old fantasia, Le Cirque.
Unlike tourists meccas like Tavern, Le Cirque has always been an iconic haven for local glitterati — such as Barbara Walters, Martha Stewart and Michael Bloomberg, who just happens to own the glass-fronted, U-shaped building where Le Cirque is now housed — a place to see and be seen (though more so decades ago), and bask in the effusive attention bestowed by famed owner and master of ceremonies, Sirio Maccioni.
In fact, so enmeshed in New York’s dazzling social scene is Le Cirque, that the food has long been dismissed as an afterthought, despite the restaurant having served as a launching pad for some of the city’s best chefs (Daniel Boulud, David Bouley and Bill Telepan, just to name a few), who’ve left behind a wealth of signature dishes, like Boulud’s legendary Black Bass Paupiette.
But among today’s spate of discerning diners with discriminating palates, for whom fabulous, forward-thinking food is held in higher regard than splendor and spectacle, few have been willing to fork over a bundle of cash for a so-so meal at Le Cirque. Enter Raphael Francois, a dashing young Frenchman formerly of London’s two Michelin star restaurant, The Connaught, charged with satisfying the moneyed regulars while finally modernizing Le Cirque’s culinary museum of a menu (no small feat). And certainly, the lanky chef possesses all of the effortless charm requisite for spearheading a Sirio Maccioni mainstay — able to work the dining room with winning élan, while still able to command control of the highly regimented kitchen. But it’s that resolutely unwavering menu that’s proved the truest testament to Francois’ considerable talent — only months into his tenure, and only five so-called ‘heritage’ items remain. (That is truly unprecedented.)
While determinately nostalgic diners can still get that Black Truffle-infused Le Cirque Salad, a far fresher starter consists of citrus-marinated Yellowtail, positioned on an edible canvas of spring peas, elderflowers and mint. And although two entrée stalwarts, the Paupiette and Sole Meuniere are still available, the best fish dish by far is Francois’ perfectly tender Turbot, improbably but deliciously paired with rhubarb and capers, and finished with a pour-over of bourbon-vanilla sauce (after all, it wouldn’t be Le Cirque without the baroque, tableside presentations). And a supremely juicy Yorkshire Suckling Pig serves as a resounding answer to a frequent complaint that Le Cirque pays little heed to the seasons — a greenmarket bounty of morels, fava beans, and adorable, thumbnail-sized ravioli stuffed with tangy goat cheese.
Serving as a New York institution for elbow rubbing and stargazing (for the older set these days) is one thing, but it might just be Francois’ impressive cooking that keeps Le Cirque going round and round.