Circus Trick

Big top: The dining room at Le Cirque 2000.Photo: Kenneth Chen

I caught the intoxicating Elaine Stritch last week. As expected, a high point of this one-woman twelve-step program is Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” in which Stritch ruefully describes her well-turned-out, cocktail-swilling former buddies as “dinosaurs surviving the crunch.”

Not only do those dinosaurs still roam the earth, some of them adapt and thrive. In the ornate library of Le Cirque 2000 the very next day, I spy a table of them. True to form, they are a fabric bonanza, swathed in plaids, brocades, and bouclés – not a little black dress in the bunch – accessorized with shiny buttons, jaw-breaking pearls, and bedazzling brooches. There are enough high, unlined foreheads that you could show a film festival.

Have these ladies assembled merely to pick at Le Cirque’s classic lobster salad? Or have they heard that the new menu includes a delicious trio of foie gras ravioli in beef consommé, so silky as to put their YSL peasant blouses to shame? Perhaps, but right now food is (temporarily, at least) beside the point. These dames are at a working lunch. They formed an investment circle a few years ago, and today they’ve gathered to design their portfolio for 2002. Well, here’s to the ladies with stock.

Le Cirque 2000 has changed, and it’s not merely because Adam Tihany’s swirling Cirque du Soleil interior has finally reached a clash-and-let-clash truce with the old ornate Villard-mansion rooms. When it first opened at the Palace Hotel, Le Cirque 2000 was chastised for its wrenching flamboyance and ungainly flow. Boldface names became apoplectic trying to determine the best tables. Critics appeared in deep incognito to prove that service was racked with favoritism. The kitchen strained to emulate former chef Daniel Boulud’s ethereal touch.

But in the past year, this spectacularly peculiar institution has altered both its mission and its cuisine. It’s become someplace new and vital, mining just enough of its famous mythology to maintain a sense of the celebratory – while avoiding becoming an anachronism. As grandmaster of ceremonies, owner Sirio Maccioni deftly juggles all those arriving at the carnival (all that sly self-effacement and perpetual fretting is just a ruse). Entitled regulars have cozily settled in the library. A new cache of business clientele mixes with tourists and others in the dining rooms. The mood – in all the rooms – is buoyant. The crowd – in all the rooms – is happy.

Much of the euphoria is due to the crowd-pleasing ethos of chef Pierre Schaedelin’s kitchen. Tables are no longer marked by uniform rows of that lobster salad and pasta primavera. Instead they’re laden with braised-lamb tortellini in a fragrant shower of aubergine caviar and curry, wonderfully smoky casseroles of sweet porcini and artichokes, and peppery lentil soup with rich, salty prosciutto. Schaedelin’s dishes exhibit no airily stackable architecture; his handling of turbot may be light, but his plates aren’t. In fact, the few times the kitchen stumbles are with dishes like Dover-sole meunière or salmon pavé, which are reminiscent of the old Le Cirque. Neither dish sparks like the moist cod stuffed with brandade and chorizo, or the lean but luscious lamb loin accompanied by slices of shoulder braised with citrus. Garnet-red maigret duck breast was often a house favorite, but now it’s abetted by a bounty of confit with lentils and foie gras and crispy zucchinis. This is not just food to be impressed by. It’s food people want.

Even the desserts no longer merely float by. Oh, classics like that chocolate stove are there. And the chocolate soufflé is lovely. But the new pastry chef excels at amber waves of tarte Tatin, delightful raviolis of pineapple and mango with white ice cream, figs and caramel served alongside a bracing granité spiced with red peppercorn, and a velvety coffee savarin that would make cappuccino seem redundant.

When Sirio would bring the chocolate stove over to his ladies in the old days, they’d play with it, giddily lift the white-chocolate pan, break off a piece of oven door, and leave it mangled but unfinished. You should have seen the blonde investment circle scarfing it down – you’d have thought there was a stock tip inside. As if we need one more reminder, nothing and no one stays the same. One hopes that everybody rises. Le Cirque certainly has.

Le Cirque 2000, 455 Madison Avenue, near 50th Street; 212-303-7788. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $12 to $29; entrées, $31 to $39. All major credit cards.

Circus Trick