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Le Cirque

151 E. 58th St., btwn. Lexington & 3rd Aves.

TYPE: Modern French
VIBE: Austere elegance
A momentous date or family affair
DON’T MISS DISH: Spaghetti primavera (off the menu)
DON’T BOTHER DISH: Scallops with walnut crumble & cauliflower a la Grenobloise
DRINK SPECIALTY: A lengthy and expensive wine list
PRICE: $90 & up
HOURS: Dinner, Mon-Sat, 5:30pm-11pm, Sun, 5pm-10:30pm; Lunch, Mon-Fri, 11:45pm-2:30pm.
RESERVATIONS: Reservations highly recommended.
DRESS CODE: Jacket required in the main dining room (not the cafe).
: Stuck in a culinary catch-22 of sorts, Le Cirque seems trapped between a new and old restaurant world order.  As chef Christophe Bellanca throws his hat into the ring, he plays it a little too safe with overly polished, but somewhat uninspired French fare.  Go for the Maccioni family theatrics and coax the “off the menu” classics out of your servers.

On most nights, you’ll still find Sirio Maccioni parading around Le Cirque’s new digs, which are definitively more tempered than its original space.  Furbished with sky high ceilings, an impressive glass wine tower and wood-paneled walls, the only true allusions to the circus theme are signature monkey accents and a cloth-trimmed ceiling.  But what’s most striking about the third incarnation of this legendary haunt is who else you’ll find patrolling the front of the new house – Mauro and Marco Maccioni.  There seems to be a changing of the guards as Sirio’s sons attempt to usher in a younger dining generation.

On the heels of a two-star review from The New York Times and buzz that the famed institution was perhaps no longer a restaurant force to be reckoned with, chef Pierre Schaedelin has made an exit after eight years in the kitchen.  With the weight of Le Cirque’s troops on his shoulders, classically trained chef, Christophe Bellanca, has stepped in to breathe new life into this big top affair.  A French-born chef whose last cooking stint was at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles, Christophe seems well-versed in the art of haute French fare, and therefore, a potentially organic fit with Le Cirque’s present regime.   

The menu deftly reflects the internal war to preserve the old order, while simulataneously appealing to a modern palate.  Gone are Schaedelin’s most recent, Greenmarket-centric dishes and Kobe cuts, which stand at blatant odds with Le Cirque classics – cote de boeuf, crispy pig’s feet, and quenelle de brochet.  Instead, Bellanca replaces many seasonally-focused dishes with restrained updates on French standards, which seem to exist in a culinary no man’s land.  He leans on dated preparations: snails en persillade (parsley & garlic), Gremolata style lamb saddle and crustacean bavaroise.  Still, old battles it out against contemporary dishes, like langoustines “a la plancha” and tataki of yellowfin tuna with yuzu and cucumber granite.

The generational conflict seems almost palpable on a Friday night, where Le Cirque veterans and aging socialites dine amidst a sparse scattering of young couples, noticeably uncomfortable in the obligatory jacket dress code.  I, being of the younger crop, opted for Bellanca’s degustation menu, which began with small nibbles of a fresh & buttery crab leg, a dollop of rich crab bavaroise (creamy mousse), and an overly salty crab salad thinly sheathed in black caviar.  I cringed as the next dish neared the table: walnut crumble-topped scallops with cauliflower a la Grenobloise (brown butter, capers and lemon juice), red beet and mushroom jus.  Enough with the unbearably trite scallop and cauliflower ill-pairing.  Unmemorable at best, this was a messy match of poorly married flavors and seasonings. 

It is a rare occassion when the entrees excel over the appetizers, but Le Cirque manages this curious feat with an outstanding herb and ginger-crusted turbot brightened with a sweet lemon and citrus vinaigrette, brought back down to earth by a savory hon shimeji mushroom accompaniment.  Equally, a crispy-skinned duck magret, served rare, managed to be tender and juicy, atop a bed of a wonderfully fragrant black truffle parmentier (potatoes). 

Still, it was impossible to ignore waiters toting dishes that seemed curiously absent from the menu.  In mid-bite, my dining partner demanded to know what the table next to us was eating.  “What is that?” I whispered to the fur-cloaked women.  “It’s not on the menu,” one of the women coyly bragged as if she knew something we didn’t. “It’s just spaghetti primavera.”  On behalf of my eating partner, I chased down our waiter and timidly requested the same dish.  The entire troop of servers circling our area, took pause, dumbfounded by the demand.  Sometime later, a silver serving cart toting a dish of naked spaghetti arrived with unusual fanfare.  “Big deal”, I thought to myself as they whisked the cart away to toss the pasta with primavera sauce.  Two piping hot bowls were presented before us; firm spaghetti entangled with bits of broccoli, fresh tomatoes, savory mushrooms and a sprinkling of crunchy pine nuts, all pleasingly bathed in a creamy sauce that didn’t resemble primavera, but I wasn’t about to push my luck by asking questions.  While the pasta itself was incontrovertibly pleasing, the satisfaction of dining on “members only” fare far outweighed the charm of such a simple dish.  As my dining partner reclined back into the banquette, he gloated, “That’s the way you eat at a place like Le Cirque.” 

We wrapped up the evening with a rich, warm chocolate cake, topped with a splendid mint chip gelato.  As I sipped an accompanying petite mug of thick hot chocolate and a homemade mint-laced marshmallow, I pondered a somewhat inexorable dilemma: Will the next breed of diners ever truly embrace the notion of jacket & tie dining?

 While aspirational young foodies are undoubtedly serious about inspired fare, they seem unwilling to make it a formal, never mind weighty affair.  We are a generation of casual diners bred to
enjoy good food in a relaxed setting.

While Le Cirque still seems to satisfy its veteran clientele, the institution is tragically damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  Like many other fine dining establishments, Le Cirque now faces the quandry of drawing in a new crop of diners,
while still maintaining its loyal following.  As Sirio slowly passes down the reigns
to his sons, the Maccioni family might be forced to acknowledge that old world regulations just don’t work in this millenium.  Maybe they should lose the jacket
policy in the dining room, an ancient practice that just doesn’t work anymore.  If they truly want to compete with the new culinary establishment that has moved in on New York’s food scene, they’ll have to change more than just the menu, and perhaps share “off the menu” secrets with the rest of us.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl

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