The small black and white striped awning doesn't intrude over the sidewalk of East 65 Street. Instead, the umbrella-shaped cupola hugs the stone walls of the Mayfair Regent Hotel--only the scripted Le Cirque signaling that inside is a small haven of discreet culinary charm. There's no sprawling entry. Just a modest black iron-and-glass doorway with a tiny foyer in front of a curtained second door, all better-suited for the arrival of quiet couples, not boisterous parties of eight. That's the way proprietor and overseer Sirio Maccioni likes it: intimate, with the air of a place where you are treated like home.
Contrary to its larger-than-life reputation, both in culinary and power table terms, Le Cirque's main room is an understated blend of Old Money chic softened with modern pink, blue and yellow pastels. The L-shaped room affords few blocked views of the front door, although some are more visible than others. Be assured. Even on slow August afternoons, Maccioni glides through the dining room, stopping to chat with regular customers, and keeping a close eye on his waitstaff.
Service is almost impeccable here. The waiters are ever-present but not overbearing. If there are shortcomings, it is in the timing of certain substitutions; on one visit, a pigeon pâté had been substituted for a hare pâté on the menu, but the diner wasn't informed until after his order arrived at the table. Wineglasses also had a tendency to empty without a waiter's notice.
But those are quibbles. The food and the scene lead the way at Le Cirque. Of course, the restaurant is headed for a period of transition which won't be complete for several months; Daniel Boulud, an extremely talented French chef who maintained Le Cirque's cooking at a world-class level, has left to start up his own restaurant. Maccioni has selected Sylvain Portay, sous chef of Louis XV at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo as a temporary, possibly permanent, replacement. In the meantime, Boulud's team, sous-chef Sottha Khunn, and pastry chef Jacques Torres, continues to turn out excellent fare.
Recent appetizers included tuna tartare seasoned with curry, radish and celery root ($14), grilled fresh foie gras and apple with Chinese black pepper and green cabbage ($23) and a pigeon pâté ($15.50). A lobster salad with lemon grass and fresh greens is served with an entire, perfectly cooked lobster tail ($19.50). A luncheon menu with daily specials is available for $28. A sea bass in a crispy potato crisp ($29) was excellent, and perfectly cooked. But a saddle of rabbit seasoned with sage, came on top of a rabbit stew in which the sage overpowered the other flavors. Nonetheless, the food was beautifully presented and delicious.
A luncheon menu with daily specials is available for $28. A sea bass in a crispy potato crisp ($29) was excellent, and perfectly cooked. But a saddle of rabbit seasoned with sage, came on top of a rabbit stew in which the sage overpowered the other flavors. Nonetheless, the food was beautifully presented and delicious.
Dessert is a must at Le Cirque. The options are attractive, and diners are advised on the dinner menu to make their selections at the beginning of the meal. Two "signature dishes" from Torres are worth sampling. Le Cirque's crème brûlée helped popularize the dish in New York in the 1980s. And a puff pastry bag filled with melted bitter chocolate and a raspberry paste is simply one of the great desserts of the world: la fontaine croustillante au chocolat amer et framboise.
Wine is a simple passion for Maccioni. He covers the bases with the great first growths of Bordeaux and the top producers from the Burgundy region; prices are fair for these wines but not inexpensive. For instance, a 1981 Château Latour costs $195 and a 1978 Mouton-Rothschild runs $248. But the real bargains are Maccioni's special wines of the week. Prices range from $16 for a Louis Latour Chardonnay to $74 for a 1990 Louis Max Meursault. Red wines recently on special included 1978 Niebaum Coppola Rubicon for $78, but some were under $30, too. The list also includes three pages of Champagnes and sparkling wines as well as selections from Italy and California.
Cigars are welcome at Le Cirque, with a couple of caveats. A waiter suggested that lighting up a cigar was "fine, as long as no one complains. Then I'll have to ask you to put it out." Past experience has shown that the maître d' will move the smoker to the bar, where he can enjoy his cigar in peace.