April 10, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable
Le Cirque: Circus of the Stars

        For years, he stands at the easel, muddying the canvas. Then one day, his brush dips into a dab of parrot green, and wham – overnight, he’s Vincent Van Gogh. A million thwacks across the net, and then it happens – he’s McEnroe. Where does it come from, that sudden explosion of energy and grace, the boost of insight and artistry? Well, whatever it is, Daniel Boulud has got it.

        He was just another well-trained technician, running the kitchen as Le Regence. Now at Le Cirque, toiling in the vortex of Sirio Maccioni’s consuming obsession with perfection, chef Boulud is flying. Day after day, he perfects dramatic new matings, all the while reviving great bistro classics and poised to deliver any of the menu’s 50 or so items backed up by his troops in white, some 30 at 1 p.m., when the night crew moors alongside the day.

        “Today, you will have choucroute, and beer in a champagne glass,” Sirio announces. Ivana Trump accepts. “I am proud to say Le Cirque is a bistro,” says New York’s consummate ringmaster. Le Cirque the bistro is his latest fixation. Let the chef compose sonnets of fresh black truffle and sliced potato with mâche and chervil, or green herb-tinted risotto with prepubescent quail, artichokes, and wild mushrooms ringed with a slick of quail glaze. Sirio is raving about the osso buco, the bouillabaisse, the tripe, today’s “simple” salt-crust-baked chicken, a luscious bird teamed with fresh peas, baby artichokes, and spring onions in a haze of powerful black pepper.

        “No one wants to eat,” Sirio is always moaning, watching the rail-lean ladies who lunch nibbling asparagus vinaigrette and supreme de flounder or chicken salad for that one thrilling climax of indulgence – just the teeniest spoonful of Le Cirque’s mythic crème brûlée. But he exaggerates. Michael Batterberry and Craig Claiborne are tucking into today’s staggering (and supernal) pot-au-feu. Or is it the equally celebrated bollito misto, its Thursday alternate, equal time reflecting the house’s schizophrenic heritage?

        And we are eating. “Everyone is staring at us,” one of my guests remarks. “They’ve probably never seen women actually eating before.” None of us can resist Boulud’s small copper casserole of buttery linguine, a nest for rabbit kidneys and liver, morels, sweetbreads, and foie gras; his savory salmon sautéed in a cornmeal crust with red cabbage, or, from the low-calorie “cuisine légère” menu, grilled lotte and trevisano radicchio with garlic and thyme. (Lunch prix fixe $33 or a la carte, entrées $22 to $28.75; dinner a la carte, entrées $24.50 to $31.)

        Very quickly, Boulud has mastered the taste and texture tricks that take the deprivation out of cholesterol counting. Direct fire is the key. You can taste the pleasant burn in his grilled lotte and scallops on diced tomato and red pepper with exotic leaves and ribbons of leek. There’s so much smoke and crunch in his grilled sea bass with dried fennel, no one misses butter. For a determined dieter, he’s framing a sublime assemblage of raw tuna, an oyster, caviar, and lemon slices with chive-flecked yogurt instead of the usual crème frâiche, scarcely a sacrifice. Even the addictive Parmesan toast is now brushed with olive oil instead of butter. And as you’re about to cry, “Not just fresh fruit again,” he offers floating island, meringue only, with kiwi in strawberry coulis, or poached rhubarb-and-berry compote with lemon zest.

        The Gallic glasnost that embraces sashimi – brilliantly, interleaving tuna with thin garlic toast and finely diced salad – has not abandoned headcheese. Boulud’s is splendid, and Euro-nomads gobble it up, along with pig’s feet when offered. In three recent lunches, Boulud has presented skate in three guises. The best: steamed, with warm beets and leek salad in vinaigrette. Roasted, with crisp ginger and sweet-and-sour vegetables, is a miraculous second. Something as unpromising as farfalle pasta with squid and eggplant can be startlingly citric and delicious. Lowly scrod, meticulously poached, paved with truffles and served on a spinach bed, is transcendent, too. Nothing surprises me, not even one miniscule ortolan, the bird that’s taboo in France now – a juicy morsel under sticks of black truffle. A treat just for me, smuggled in by a friend of the house.

        Grand masters of pastry seem to come and go here, setting off small volcanic explosions as Maccioni alerts his network of cronies abroad for gifted recruit. The latest is Jacques Torres, who looks like an Olympic gymnast of a Broadway gypsy. Now Le Cirque’s confections are more fanciful than ever – pulled-sugar monkeys and plaid ribbons, a chocolate piano, puff-pastry spikes that tickle the air.

        Sirio and his crew sweep in with a tidal wave of desserts – intense, smooth sorbets in a rococo silver-and-crystal gizmo, piquant lemon mousse hiding raspberries on a passion-fruit puddle, more lemon in a toasted, puckered meringue, a frozen panettone – nine or ten small plates at a time, many of them more fluff than substance, plus a wonderful froufrou of petit fours and sugared fruit and the newest acquisition, tiny silver candy dishes for the homemade chocolates.

        Never mind that Henry Kissinger has stopped by today and Richard Nixon has his corner not far from Beverly Sills and Barbara Walters, next to David Brown one day and Helen Gurley the next. Or that Ronald Perelman, Ivana, Blaine, and Alice Mason are at their top-seeded tables. Or that Happy Rockefeller is tête-a-tête with the last empress of Iran while the unquenchable South Americans and ubiquitous Greeks jeté around the room. Kiss-kiss. Sirio sees only who of Who’s Who isn't there. Stay away a month, and he’ll call or write: “Without you, I cannot be happy.”

        The good news is that Daniel Boulud feeds everyone in the house with or without a personal invitation.

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