March 29, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable
It is the agony. It is the ecstasy. All around us is the lively hip-hop of the rich at lunch. Ever the legendary debonair ringmaster of Le Cirque, Sirio darts and whirls, taming his pets with faultless brio. But I know. He knows I know. I know he knows I know I am driving him crazy. Too many butter sauces. Too many squashy vegetables, always the same. So many sea creatures just plain overcooked. Now I am dipping a finger into one sticky brown sauce, licking it, then dipping into another.
He swoops in: “One thing I always insist to the chef, every sauce must be different.” He knows I know. The emperor’s new chef is wearing skivvies. Sirio Maccioni’s noisily ballyhooed search for a master to replace the decamping Daniel Boulud has run aground. Sylvain Portay is breaking our hearts.
Of course it’s early. He took up the fallen whisk just a few days before Christmas. After all, Portay was the toque in charge when Alain Ducasse won that coveted third Michelin star for Louis XV in Monte Carlo. To move from some 70 covers to Le Cirque’s 300 must be daunting. He’s in shock. And as Sirio reminds me, “Daniel wasn’t a star when he arrived. He took time to settle in.”
I’m being silly. It really doesn’t matter. Not more than sixteen people can possibly care. A handful of restaurant professionals and a few obsessed foodniks. You and I may be sitting here wondering what to make of the banal dodine of squab in its unappealing beige skin and the pea-and-bacon ragout that tastes exactly like the butter-braised vegetables, wishing for relief in the squid-ink bow-tie pasta -- but no. It’s a taste of that last-minute butter. Déjà goo. Still, we may be the only people in this place actually eating. Everyone else is playing with asparagus.
The famous and infamous bottoms on the status banquettes are what count. Not the tasteless, overcooked flounder, not the salty, dizzily rich nage it sits in. Le Cirque is Louise Grunwald and Saint Laurent’s Joy Henderiks, nibbling the first green stalks of spring somewhere (Chile?) next to Jerome Zipkin. It’s Jean Harris celebrating the freedom to lunch with Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, Liz Smith, and Iris Love. It’s Evelyn Lauder and pals putting $1 bills into a pool predicting the weight of Alice Mason’s soon-to-be-born granddaughter. And the young beauties, the stunning blonde trophies, the never-too-rich heiresses and the heir-heads.
“Come as my guest,” Sirio beseeches them. “Please, just a small glass of champagne,” he begs the Perrier drinkers. A raging river of untouched Malvasia is poured for lips that no longer touch alcohol before cocktail hour, lips that might bite a cookie for dessert. Sirio’s pleasure. His idea of perfection. Le Cirque is his life.
He is always adding to his act, never taking anything away. Now the bus-boy passes focaccia. Later, glazed Parmesan toast, hot from the oven. Then Sirio insists we try lard crouton.
“Lard? Are you mad? Lard is pure fat.”
But this is special lard, he protests, an almost ethereal rendering of pignominy, aged in marble caves 15,000 feet above the sea. The lardsmith himself is lunching solo across from us, guest of the house. Sirio introduces him. So now there are thin crisps of larded toast on the table, as well as Eli’s bread and the fat sesame breadsticks and something called Riviera toast from the sixties. Scarcely noticed by the chorus line of dames, whose idea of noontime nutrition is gossip and a few leaves of bibb.
Having groaned and moaned and crossed his eyes for emphasis over the cost of the custom porcelain with the playful monkeys (he sent it back to be redone because they weren’t smiling), he’s fixated on a brand-new china service. (Notice the heavy antique-silver pepper mill?) Regulars who never even see the check may not give a fig to learn there’s a new $29 prix fixe business lunch (a shocking concession to reality). When a favored darling actually eats, Sirio can dazzle her with truffle excess as another man might with rubies. But he still insists on that tacky cover charge, $2 at lunch, $2.50 at dinner.
Today, as always, we’ve left the lunch strategy to the kitchen. We are exploring a fusillade of buttery peas and beans commencing with a delicious gilding of the lily: gently smoked herring with slices of potato buried in discs of black truffle. Is it unfair to tax the new chef with such challenges on a full-throttle Friday? Not really. Not with Sottha Khunn, the rock of Cambodia, as his second and a crew of 37 ready to indulge a guest’s crankiest whim, anything from an omelet to Paul Bocuse’s historic truffle soup (45 minutes) to a whole roasted kidney or a classic râble de lapereau farci -- saddle of rabbit stuffed with kidneys.
Though the Sirio-driven captains can get addled (like wives dedicated to pleasing domineering mates), the waiters are stealth bombers, diving in with fresh silver and dashing off before you can notice. Still, the fettuccine puttanesca is salty, muddy, inedible. The bouillabaisse has lost its usual savor, its rouille wimpy, the lobster tough. But the scallops Provençale on spinach with a graceful green trail of olive oil wakes us up, and the day’s special pig’s feet is a voluptuous marvel. Just as we’re longing for sorbet, a gargantuan roast is presented. We agree to a minuscule slice -- richly marbled veal shank, cooked to a caramelized perfection, its juice reduced to a familiar glue
Is anyone else actually eating today? Carolina Herrara? Celeste Holm? Blondies et al.? At the adjoining table, a trio munches on chopped salad (she and she with dressing on the side, he very macho, with extra chicken) and stares at us as if we were the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. In a sense, we are.
“What is that salad?” we ask Sirio. He shrugs in derision. “La salade panachée.” What torture he puts up with. But of course we must taste it.
“Dressing on the side,” I instruct.
The captain won’t hear of it. “Have the Roquefort,” he suggests. And then he throws in chopped walnuts. With beets, string beans, romaine, artichoke…we manage to down every morsel.
Now it’s Jacques Torres’ turn. Le Cirque’s star pâtissier. Soon the table is covered with dazzling confectionery. A chocolate tower with gold on a map of the neighborhood. A chocolate stove with two chocolate pots, one filled with crème anglaise, the other with raspberry coulis. Battered fruits on a skewer beside a creamy yellow sea measled with dots of berry coulis. My favorites are the chocolate fondante with orange sauce and candied peel, and the simplest – roasted berries with vanilla ice cream or warm poached apricots with Valrhona chocolate ice cream, latte cotto with balsamic-vinegar-marinated fruit and huckleberry sauce, and tropical fruit in a celestial lime syrup.
In my half-dozen tastings since Christmas, Torres has never served the same dessert twice -- except the chocolate hat. He wants me to taste it again. “Last time, you didn’t cut through to the praline layer,” he explains, appearing at the table in immaculate whites, MEILLEUR OUVRIER embroidered above his name, looking like a beautiful California surfer. Now a three-foot-high sculpture of a violin in chocolate arrives with cookies and truffles.
“It’s art,” cries Evelyn Lauder. “It’s a Braque or a Picasso. I must have it for Leonard’s birthday.” Is it envy of disgust in the glances that come our way?
In the corner they are eating tangerines. Zipkin demands a blood tangerine. “I had one last week,” he insists. A blood orange in peeled petals is sent from the kitchen. I cannot imagine ever preferring a tangerine, ever being so…grown-up. Mary McFadden, in her usual Kabuki face, waves goodbye. “Oh, it’s you, Mary,” says Zipkin. “One would hardly recognize you.”
But by now, we all recognize Sirio and his obsession. He may have noticed that certain savvy clients order only dishes they know Sottha oversees. Will a contract ever be signed? Sirio may not have hit the jungle drums again, but don’t be surprised to learn he’s out scouting. The man who keeps five skilled dessert cooks in case of defections won’t settle for sodden fava beans.