June 16, 1997 | Vintage Insatiable
Le Cirque 2000: Space Odyssey

        "Either we are a genius or we are completely crazy," Sirio Maccioni once conceded, not needing couch-time to arrive at this self-revelation. Sirio may think Le Cirque 2000 belongs to him and his three sons, Mario, Marco and Mauro. Prince Jefri of Brunei, having lured the mythic lion tamer to the landmark Villard Houses -- an antique jewel glued in the navel of The Palace Hotel -- may fancy that Le Cirque is his. But we know better. We Park Avenue blondes, Waspish trust fund babies and Jewish American Princesses, we gourmand priests and food world flapsters, we jet stream migrants, Euro-transplants, Masters of the Universe, we own Le Cirque. And we've been in a tizzy since Sirio threw open the doors. We are one man's family. How could he do this to us?

        "If I brought this chair home and said it was for my new restaurant, you'd say I was out of my mind." cries one regular, craning her neck from behind the tall one-armed velvet chair.   Another fan dismisses the slapstick of service that first week. "It's chaos but it's so early. I'll give them time. Mark my words: the chairs will go. Sirio and his sons will saw them down themselves if they have to."  

        Everyone loves Sirio. "I love Sirio," they say, "But..." It's like your dignified 80-year-old grandfather suddenly comes home in drag. "How could they desecrate those beautiful, historic rooms," moans an anguished and expensively-preserved preservationist.

        "Neon and schmutz," snorts one fan, disenchanted by the design as well as his $160 lunch: "I ordered the bouillabaise and it was just bouillabaise."

        Still another is shocked by the waiter's familiarity: "He kept calling me by my first name." 

        "I rather like the front room," a friend confides, "But that pole --whatever it is -- in the bar stabs me in the heart."

        The Zagats are half right: every New Yorker is a restaurant critic. And an architectural savant as well. Sirio's phone never stops ringing. It's still ringing at 2 a.m. With the unexpected two month delay to reconstruct the precious parquetry floor (no one knew what was there till they pulled up the old carpet and a third of the floor came with it), there were already 2000 reservations in the book by May lst, opening day.   

        The Saturday after is a cattle stampede. Only a skeleton of staff from uptown are back. The raw recruits -- their mixed genders a first for Le Cirque -- are woundup but not programmed. Alas, the $1 plus million kitchen -- possibly the most beautiful I've ever seen -- is far away from the $2 million (or so) dining rooms, 46 seconds from the pastry station to our table. The flight path runs through the bar with its casual amblers, past an overflow of patrons consigned to hunker over low cocktail tables as they nibble their lamb chops. Traffic clots again at Sirio's podium -- scene of much cheek-grazing,wrap-sloughing, fawning chit chat and am-I-going-to-Siberia angst. So waiters pause and lurch and wait.

        No wonder the crayfish in it's listless nage is tepid. No wonder the focaccia -- too long out of the oven -- is ossified in its slick of embalming oil. I ask for ice water, New York water, please.   "Evian," the captain corrects me. But I insist and he rolls his eyes as if to say, well it's your funeral. The gang's all here: Cy Coleman, Alan King, Lee Radziwill, Hugh Downes along with the affluent whose names rarely get boldfaced. Aren't we smug? I like the colored clown buttons on the back of the chairs. I almost think I like the room, the sand-blasted glass screens in steel stands. And the stained glass balls that look suspended in air.

        "It's like putting a Ferrari in a Palazzo," architect Adam Tihany keeps insisting. The concept is brilliant. Baronial fittings to match the regal setting would have created a mausoleum. But isn't this too gypsy-caravan?

        "That Adam," Sirio mutters, but when it comes to architect Adam Tihany, he is like a man with a difficult wife who has no intention of leaving her. He just needs to complain. The bus boys have vanished. Sirio clears the table himself. The sommelier joins him. "No! No! No!," the boss cries as the errant help swoops in to denude another table that has just trailed away briefly for a kitchen tour.

        No point in talking about about food tonight. Nor a week later, even though, we're spending easily $100 each for dinner and $80 for lunch (the $35 prix fixe is a small charity). Occasionally a carefully-cooked turbotin or a flavorful lobster risotto does comes our way. But the kitchen crew is clearly struggling. Even with a veteran like Marc Poidevin as his chef de cuisine, Sottha Khuun, the French-trained Cambodian who worked beside Le Cirque's superchef Daniel Boulud, has yet to get his mostly brand new pups in sync. The show is a work in progress. 

        At noon a few days later the air feels becalmed. "Sottha put his foot down," a Maccioni scion confides. "He took off his apron and told my dad 'if this is the way it's going to be, you can cook.' My Dad just couldn't say no to anyone the first few days. But now he's holding back on bookings, till the staff learns his ways. " Kissenger conspires with a duo of stylish Circes at the next table and Warner LeRoy has gathered an eclectic octet in the corner. The house is still pushing the linoleum focaccia. Grilled soft shell crabs are definitely an improvement over an earlier soggy sauté but nowhere near the brilliance of a single deep-fried specimen that the chef was dishing up in a preview on Sirio's birthday. And heavenly cool corn soup with lobster signals a spark of life.

        "You should have ordered the bollito misto," Sirio chides me, bringing a demitasse of its intense consomme. Waiters gingerly deliver sweet fruit soup with sorbet in tall jewel-hued Venetian goblets. At $150 each Sirio has every right to be fixated on the breakage. "We're only losing two a day," he usually tells the privileged pets deemed worthy of this extravagently-mounted palate cleanser before the inundation of dessert.

        That Playing favorites: that has not changed. As Orwell pointed out, some animals are more equal than others. Not every table will be gifted with stone crab or a truffled scallop. Even favorites with special privilege in the old place may never see the parmesan toast or a pulled-sugar clown. We've tasted dessert, the justly exalted creme brulee and the harlequin, a white-and-dark-chocolate mousse. But now a whole pithiviers is left on our table, still hot from the oven. "I love pithiviers." says Sirio. I love the almond-paste gilded layers of puff pastry, too. I cut him a triangle.   

        Two-thirds of the way into May, the service crew seems less green The wine steward is like the rubber man, stretching himself taller and thinner to squeeze by the much-maligned chairs. He is quick with suggestions as I hunt for something l like that won't alarm our accounting department, a private label Chablis or Volnay, perhaps. Though the Talbot at $65 is easily twice as marvelous as the Meyney at $40. Our host is tense but he can turn on the charm, oiling his way across the floor as in days gone by.

        "A beautiful woman should face the door," he says, seating an elegant twosome.

        "You're so kind," she murmurs.

        Now he hefts a basket of porcini from the sideboard and shows them off to Art Buchwald and Alice Mason at side-by-side tables on the modest banquette (with clamp-on bullet lights that jiggle when you move). He's obsessing again, in the full lash of the chair rebellion. "The new chairs, they're definitely coming," he announces. "I said to Adam, 'The place is beautiful, now you have to let me make it functional.'"

        My guest, a longtime Le Cirque pet, has been out-of-town. He can't stand the room. "It's not the same without that long banquette where you can see the parade and dish everyone in the room." But the beast within subsides as he tucks into the porcini. Nostalgia flavors the house's classic herb-filled ravioli in a perfect light tomato sauce. Lush tendrils of crab fill batter-fried zucchini blossoms arranged on the bright yellow petals of a flower steamed to the plate. Both the sedately Sichuan-peppered cod and potato-cloaked paupiette of bass are gently cooked. And the quirky twists of the Venetian goblet amuse him. Quickly we are surrounded by footed silver compotes -- one with cherries big as plums, another heaped with the deep-fried fritters called bugie, and battered fried figs in still a third. Two dozen tartlettes, cookies and fruit gels arrive on a marble rectangle with his espresso. We are the only table with cherrie, sugared pastry crisps and baked figs.   I wonder why someone doesn't stand up and scream: Where's my bugie?

        A week later: It's my sixth visit. And Honey, he's shrunk the chairs. The kitchen is shaping up, though one night folks in the Red Room are riveted by shouts beyond the stoves. Both risottos -fragrant porcini and a toss of white and green asparagus with parmesan --are first-rate and sole with wild baby asparagus is perfection. The crisped truffled pig's feet still haunt me. Why is the marvelous tripe confined to the bar menu and only on Sunday? I cannot tell yet if the chef has the stuff of genius. So far there's a sameness to many dishes, too much that's familiar. Hell, I want to feel the earth move.  

        As for Jacque Torres, I've come to wonder if he ever eats dessert himself. Yes, he is the Fabergé of patissiers. But his cunning chocolate stove, the cassis "topiary," and apricot-strawberry "drum roll" are almost always more fun to look at than to eat. Give me his fabulous caramelized banana "clown hat," the intense sorbets, the tangy apple soup, and the warm poached cherries (though I almost choked on the too-sweet syrup).

        Not that the ladies who munch salade panachée for lunch will much care. Already the regulars are claiming their tables. A few insist on bar stations. (There's a bar menu too). Once the madness simmers down and Sirio has time to taste again, he may spur his team to take greater risks. As he is likely to remind you, "Daniel Boulud wasn't a star when he arrived. He took time to settle in."

455 Madison Avenue.

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