January 31, 1977 | Vintage Insatiable
I Love Le Cirque But Can I Be Trusted?

        I wasn’t going to tell you about Le Cirque. The trouble is, I know more about Le Cirque that I want to know… more than Le Cirque’s brass would like me to know… more than you may care to know. My conscience was troubled: to tell or not to tell? The truth is simple: Something wonderful is happening at Le Cirque. And I’m too close to claim objectivity. George Bernard Shaw was right. “Clearly a critic should not belong to a club at all,” he wrote. “He should not know anybody: His hand should be against every man, and every man’s hand against his.” Hmmmph. That was easy enough for Shaw to say. He was a vegetarian. So this story is necessarily larded with a measure of one woman’s frailty.

        How innocently it all began. Pierre Franey’s daughter would be married that afternoon in Craig Claiborne’s garden overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. A pride of Papa’s confreres were gathered to create the feast. Locked into combat with my typewriter not many miles away, I was invited to lend a hand, Jean Vergnes, proprietor of Le Cirque, was there with his chef, Jean Louis Todeschini, baking their pâté chaude en croûte. Vergnes was courtly. Todeschini, bemused. After all, I am the critic who wrote the review so crisply unkind to their restaurant. So there I was, fluting lemons in the chill of Craig’s wine cellar. How innocent. After Lohengrin, we ate and danced and drank too much and flirted a little.

        The food world is small and gossipy, but I had no reason to feel compromised by my new friendship with Jean Louis. I never planned to reassess Le Cirque. Everything about its style left me cold. In a rating of the town’s best French restaurants (New York, March 3, 1975), I ranked it thirteenth, and found it ambitious but wanting. My cool scarcely matters. Le Cirque was already a crunching success, a soup kitchen for the anguished orphans of the late Colony. Earl Blackwell beckoned. The limos lined up outside 58 East 65th Street – the two-tone Rolls, the Cadillac with white mink carpeting. And inside were those old familiar Colony faces – Jean Vergnes, its chef, and maître d’hotel Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque’s co-owners now – clicking heels, kissing hands, doing headstands. The nibbling fashionables and the displaced rich felt comfortable in the beige-and-peachy dowager elegance with its witty monkey murals. No need to bear the ultimate insult – to be somebody and have nobody there to know it.

        Something pale and fiercely boring called veal aplatie was what everyone ordered. The old Colony’s infamous sauce maison – a wildly assertive blend of bottled elixirs – was poured on anything that didn’t move. If a migrant Colony pet recalled the sauce maison as sharper, bolder, more piquant, an SOS command was flashed to the kitchen to correct it. More Worcestershire, more mustard, more Tabasco. “If someone falls in while we are cooking it, he’ll probably dissolve,” Jean Louis Todeschini confided.

        Given devoted regulars who dote on well-done lamb chops or a Spartan sliver of broiled fish… actually demand canned peas… Le Cirque had no incentive at all to dream or strive for cuisinary glory. Vergnes’s faith in the old Colony menu never faltered, but gradually he began to give executive chef Todeschini the kitchen reins. Jean Louis, a great bear of a man from France’s Franche-Compté, is restless and ambitious. He is a man with the Japanese sensibility for cooking meat and an endearing enthusiasm for neglected vegetables – stubborn, opinionated, a quick study. He is a gourmand himself. And he loves to feed the discriminating gourmand mouth. The food improved.

        Now, almost two years later, the kitchen still has its lapses. And often the dining room is utterly demoralized. Evening brings a manic din. There is a primitivism here that can sabotage the best-dreamed cuisinary inventions. Forget about consistent refinement. Here, when the kitchen is good, it is very, very good, but when it is mediocre, you are not entirely surprised. Still, when it is brilliant you are dazzled. Todeschini’s spaghetti primavera is as crisp and beautiful as a Matisse. I have called it the best pasta in town. Now, having tasted the spaghetti aux fruits de mer – an astonishing concerto of clam, mussel, scallop and crab meat in a thin sea-scented cream – I’m wavering. The côte de beouf villette – a thick cut from the ribs aged three weeks in the house’s own cold box – rivals the greatest steakhouse beef. And even a dish as humble as lamb steak (fussily called “selle de pre sale desossee” on the menu, without any accents) emerges impeccably grilled – gently charred and rare, with its kidney tucked inside.

        But I might never have discovered any of this except for a casual gastronomic bulletin from my friend the Wall Street Voluptuary. “Le Cirque is becoming one of the best restaurants in town,” he advised one day. “You must be kidding,” I said (being often less amusing on the phone than on the typewriter). He insisted. “They do magnificent spachettis. They’ve done a different spaghetti for me the last dozen times I’ve eaten there.” He invited me to lunch.

        Jean Louis Todeschini just happened to be studying the reservations list as I came in the door. He seemed slightly amused by my sudden unannounced appearance… but only slightly. The Wall Street Voluptuary, gastronomic sachem Roger Yaseen, is capable of committing highly porcine excess. Bliss for Roger is a meal that is somehow educational. He orders not to nourish, but to explore. And that lunch was a foreshadowing of everything I would come to discover about Le Cirque – the compromise, the fatal impulse to please, the shortcuts, the wonderfully stubborn ambition, the innocence, and the flashes of greatness – the crunch of turnip filled with perfect buttery vegetables, each cooked to the precise bite; a rough and zesty bouillabaisse served with peppery rouille; and that spectacular spaghetti primavera. Would life be worth living without pasta? Especially this pasta – tart tomato red, garden green of broccoli and pea, a shadow of mushroom, pine nuts, torn leaves of basil, some butter, and a splash of cream.

        There is a tiny corner of me that could have been an old-fashioned Latin teacher. And she would have been toughest on the most brilliant student. My Latin teacher, stoned with the joy of silken chicken and vegetable jewels, went after Jean Louis. The calamari – why so tough? How could the same man who did that sublime turnip suffer the plastic heart of artichoke? The plebeian foie gras? The homely bread?

        “You asked for calamari. I knew it was tough, but the dining room never says no to a client,” Todeschini explained. “The artichoke is not to eat… it’s a cold table decoration. And I can’t sell the best foie gras here. Our customers won’t pay the price. Don’t ask me about the bread.”

        From that moment to this the gastronomic dialogue has continued. Polite interrogation. Debate. Gentle counsel. Screaming arguments. Insult. Jean Louis brings cheese for a picnic. “No thanks,” I say. “I guess you don’t have much demand for cheese at Le Cirque.” Not much, he agrees. “Well, I’m not going to insult my mouth with inferior Brie,” I say. He frowns – a Frenchman, after all, not about to take criticism gracefully… especially not from a woman. But a week later I discover he’s now buying the restaurant’s cheese from the best cheese man in town. “And now, Jean Louis, about this disgusting bread.”

        “Shut up about the bread already.”

        I cooked for Jean Louis and Jean Louis cooked for me. My zucchini – grated, squeezed dry, and sautéed after the recipe of Julia Child – began appearing at Le Cirque with a Todeschini flourish – in a cabbage-leaf “cup.” He taught me how to cook quail. I threw some dried figs into Madeira with a dash of vinegar in the sauce-making style I learned from the Michelin-starred chef Roger Verger. Quail with figs in Madeira appeared last winter at Le Cirque. “Must it always be boring chocolate mousse?” I nagged. He stole my Troisgros recipe for kiwi tart, and his version is a handsome and exotic addition to the often shabby pastry display at Le Cirque. “You’ve got to do something about that pastry,” I begged. “It’s too thick, uncooked… there’s too much frangipane. And why canned pears on that tart?” He was indignant. “We never use canned pears.” Well, then they’re overcooked,” I countered. “Enough!” he commanded. “Taste this.” My mouth was full of wild boar terrine – a heady boldness of pork studded with hazelnuts, pistachios, and fresh green peppercorns.

        There is a clipping on my desk, designed to keep me humble – a quote from Tristan Bernard: “A critic is a virgin who wants to teach a Don Juan how to make love.” My Pygmalion fantasy… I didn’t know I had one.
 
        The Wall Street Voluptuary takes me to Le Cirque for a birthday lunch. “What wine would be appropriate?” he asks. “Pink champagne?” I smile. How about a wine of my birth year?” There are not many restaurants in town where he could indulge me so – but Le Cirque inherited a cache of fine (I shudder to write “old” – what is old in Chambolle-Musigny is scarcely the debut of prime in a woman) Burgundies from the landlord, William Zeckendorf Jr., who built this spiffy diner to boost the intended renaissance of the Mayfair Hotel. As the new national leader of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a liaison of gastronomic celebrants, the Wall Street Voluptuary has a plan. “We will give fellowships to the best captains in town so they can visit exemplary restaurants – to eat, study, learn, and grow.”

        “Nevermind the captains,” I cry. “Think of the chefs. Do you realize Jean Louis Todeschini has never been to Lutèce or Caravelle, the Four Seasons… not even to Alfredo’s?” And that is how Jean Louis came to be awarded the Chaîne’s princely $250 Eat-and-Learn Fellowship.

        At the Palace on the fellowship: Todeschini marvels at the luxury of space. “If this were Le Cirque, they’d have twice as many tables and three in the vestibule,” I mutter.

        “I do believe in America,” he announces, surprised by how much he likes his Parducci petite sirah ’71 – at $15, no strain on the fellowship. “I like my sauce better,” he decides, tasting the house’s aristocratic raw beef.

        I can’t resist: “But why doesn’t Le Cirque’s carpaccio taste like this?” He is silent. I make a point of admiring the crusty warmed roll. He frowns.

        “Perhaps I could get better butter,” he concedes. He is sobered to think the entire capon is being carved… just for us. “At Le Cirque I do ballottine of capon Belle Epoque, stuff it with mousseline, truffle, spinach, and prosciutto in brioche – it’s beautiful, the red, black and green – everybody loves it.” And one capon will serve twelve at $12.75 each – “I’d get $150 for that bird.”

        I am learning about the restaurant business – more than I ought to know. And now that I’ve broken every rule of critical distance – including a few George Bernard Shaw never mentioned – I’ve decided to review Le Cirque. There is no chance there of anonymity for me. So I send over my serious food-lover friends and stray innocents, who are led to tiny back tables and neglected. They confirm what I already know. Le Cirque can never be a great restaurant. Cuisinary invention never ceases. But execution is a problem.

        There is not enough professional help in the kitchen. A year and a half ago the current roast man was a dishwasher. Todeschini (who apprenticed in the kitchen at thirteen) trained him. For two years Todeschini hunted for a competent garde-manger – the journeyman who does the vegetables, soups, terrines, and salads for the cold table. In the fall he found a man. He quit the next day. “Too much,” he said. “You do too much here.” In the golden days of the old Pavilion, more than a dozen trained French chefs performed their legerdemain in giant kitchens like this. Here there are Jean Louis, a saucier by day, migrant helpers, at night a talented Thai cook Jean Louis found sweeping the floor at Luchow’s. Half the time, Jean Vergnes is there to “call the slide” – shout orders and oversee the flow of food. The pressure at 9 p.m. is killing. If a man is out, Jean Louis does double duty. If the dishwashing machine goes berserk, “everyone is in the soup.” Tempers sear. A côte de boeuf sits too long on the warming shelf. Food gets tossed onto the plate. Sauces slurp. Or curdle. Or burn. In simpler times, no chef would dream of not making his own wine aspics to grace the terrines. Todeschini doesn’t even try.

        He is a fiend about food costs. The food costs at Le Cirque are profitably low. Todeschini spends hours on the phone playing three butchers off one against the other – getting the best price for the meat he wants. It is cheaper to buy the whole calf than paillard of veal by the pound – for the house’s beloved veal aplatie. So he spends hours dreaming schemes to use all that veal. No wonder the menu can seem boring. The $10.50 prix-fixe lunch here (as in many French restaurants) is skillfully designed to make leftovers disappear. There are always daily specials – once the most glorious cassoulet I’ve ever tasted in America, often choucroute garnie or a splendid pot au feu Le Cirque dismisses casually as “boiled beef.” Lately, venison stew. At dinner the kitchen dares more complicated visions (with wine, the tab for two could run $65 to $100) – roast wild baby boar or whole striped bass for two wrapped around a seafood mousse in a champagne sauce with a garnish of clam, mussel, shrimp, and steamed cucumber. Of course, your captain may neglect to alert you.

        At times it seems as if the kitchen and the dining room work in competition rather than in concert. A captain is rushed. He has no time to explain, to seduce, to divine your taste or appetite. He rattles and runs. Perhaps he’ll remember all the specials of the night. Perhaps he won’t Sometimes the spaghetti is overcooked. Sometimes the vegetables lose their crisp. At lunch a few weeks ago someone forgot the basil. There is no time. There is no pride.

        The table accessories are strictly functional. There are no service plates. One evening a roll was so stale the captain found the grace to blush, then disappeared to toast everything. There is a pathetic parody of classic French service, no place at all to keep food warm, no room for the nicety of offering more bouillabaisse or another slice of venison. Sirio, so handsome, so dimpled, so meticulously dapper, oozes charm, and Jean Vergnes, flushed plump cherub in kitchen whites, looks exactly as a chef ought to. But he should be waxing lyrical over what the kitchen is offering today as he makes his rounds, not simply greeting old friends and saying, “Excuse me, I won’t interrupt.” As it is, his presence in the dining room is an utter waste except when Sirio is away – and one, if not both, of them is almost always out – sheer madness on weekends, when the dining room is indeed a circus. (Though, to be frank, Le Cirque’s noisy, easygoing Saturday-nighters seem to bloom in the bedlam.)

        Scholars and supplicants of the New York restaurant scene often ask why our best chefs lack the splendid razzle-dazzle of their brothers back home in the truffle fields of France. So now you know. Now you know why there are times Jean Louis Todeschini comes lurching around the corner of Le Cirque’s shabby old kitchen with a look in his eye that makes you thankful there is no cleaver in his hand.

        And still Todeschini isn’t giving up. Inspired by ten days of Herculean tasting in France – we took a crash course with the mellowing young Turks of the “nouvelle cuisine” – he is turning out dishes that seem to mystify most of the Le Cirque regulars. One wintry evening there is pigeon, crusty brown but rare within on crisp ribbons of cabbage – the best thing to happen to a pigeon on this island in my memory. Homage to Michel Guérard, inspired by a similar dish tasted at Regine’s in Paris. A few days later there is a noble venison steak for two – charred on the outside, cool at the center – an astonishing taste and texture of meat requiring no marinade, just salt and pepper. And with it, crisp Brussels-sprout halves, a splash of chanterelles, and turnips Anna – thin turnip slices cooked in a buttery flat layer as of they were potatoes. Todeschini’s experiments have led to impeccably poached filet of bass and delicately steamed oysters with thin batons of vegetables in buttery broth, and oysters again with tiny bay scallops and crunchy vegetable julienne in beurre blanc.

        I discover Jean Louis is serving thin venison steak instead of the massive slab I had tasted earlier. “Jean Louis,” I scold, “you have no respect for your customer.” “But I do have respect,” he says. “I respect their taste so I serve a big steak thin. Not a single person all week has ordered venison rare. Nobody wants rare kidneys. You don’t know what respect means.”

        What can I say? I’ve learned a lot from Jean Louis. Now he’s teaching me English. And if New Yorkers who really care about food don’t go into Le Cirque and demand to be dazzled (preferably, call and order ahead), all this will be nothing but an exercise in ego.

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