We forgot to wear our pink ties,” muttered my Uncle Frank as we settled down to dinner at the latest iteration of Le Cirque, a great, polished, cruise ship of a restaurant that opened almost two months ago in a grandly ceremonial new venue in the Bloomberg tower in midtown. My Uncle Frank has been dining around New York in a concerted and vigorous manner for more than six decades, and until now it had been a point of some pride with him that he had never set foot in any of the Le Cirque restaurants, neither the original one nor its splashy successor in the Villard mansions nor any of the rapidly multiplying Le Cirque outlets in Las Vegas or Mexico. Uncle Frank was a regular at the Oyster Bar, a connoisseur of earthy, offbeat specialties like pig’s knuckles and stewed tripe. He’d visited the old Colony restaurant, where Le Cirque’s famous owner, Sirio Maccioni, was for years the maître d’, but claimed never to have actually laid eyes on Maccioni, who was, at this very minute, moving inexorably toward us, pausing here and there to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of assorted aging contessas and paleo-billionaires dressed resplendently in their charcoal suits and pastel (occasionally pink) summer ties.
Wearing strange, violet-tinted glasses and a dark, pin-striped suit, Maccioni looked more somber than usual, and his new surroundings seemed a little more somber, too. The last Le Cirque was housed in the grand, pseudo-European confines of the Villard Houses. The new one sits on the bottom floor of the Bloomberg corporate headquarters and looks out over an impressive stone courtyard surrounded by a curving façade of glass and steel. You can leave your car with a valet at the entrance or be deposited there in your limousine. Inside, the antic color scheme of Le Cirque 2000 has been replaced by a look that is sleeker, more formal, even funereal. The walls are covered in panels of buffed wood, the kind you might find at a grandiose casket company or perhaps in the stateroom of a corporate yacht. There’s also an octagonal glass wine cooler in the bar area, as big as a grain silo. A circus figure reminiscent of a Calder hovers over the bar, and the ceiling of the main dining room is rimmed with folds of cloth to evoke a big top. But Le Cirque (both restaurants were designed by Adam Tihany) doesn’t feel so much like a circus anymore. It feels restrained, even a little subdued, a place designed less for glamorous celebration than a hushed business lunch.
This new aesthetic seems to be a deliberate attempt on Maccioni’s part to capture the cool, streamlined spirit of the new millennium. The irony, of course, is that Maccioni remains an unreconstructed gentleman of the old school. “He’s the only guy in the room who looks real,” commented Uncle Frank as the great restaurateur passed regally by. “Everyone else here looks like they’ve spent too much time in the gym.” Similar conflicts between old and new are evident on the menu, which has been put together by Pierre Schaedelin, who also ran the kitchen at the old restaurant. It’s been pared down from its previous baroque, Eurocentric form and is dotted now with chic Greenmarket references to “vine-ripened organic” tomatoes and bluefin tuna caught, in the proper Slow Food manner, on “hook and line.” Nouveau delicacies like langoustines doused with curried ginger and Kaffir lime coexist with elderly favorites like sole meunière, and if you feel like it, you can follow your portion of elegantly deboned pig’s trotter with helpings of ravioli stuffed with salt cod or Kobe beef.
Faced with this obvious set of choices, my Uncle Frank did what I’m sure Maccioni would do. He ordered the pig’s feet (crunchy and predictably delicious), followed by an excellent portion of braised lamb shoulder, flavored with apricots and spooned by one of our many attentive waiters from a shiny copper pot. I ordered the warm lobster salad (for an egregious $39), which was warm enough but lacked any evidence of salad, and the two Mozambique langoustines (for $48), both of which were undercooked. Among the newfangled appetizers, it was generally agreed, the peekytoe crabmeat (chilled, in a tall martini glass, in a cool froth of tangerines, Thai basil, and tomato) was the best, but if you don’t mind dropping a lot of cash (and at Le Cirque, dropping a lot of cash is what people do), the safest bet of all is the good old-fashioned terrine of foie gras ($38), cut in generous pink slabs, trimmed with duck fat, and garnished with a tangy Gewürztraminer gelée.
The best entrées at the new Le Cirque tend to be the safe and stolid ones as well, the dependable kind of big-ticket items favored by elderly plutocrats with settled tastes and fat pocketbooks. The sole meunière is done just the way my grandmother used to like it. The Muscovy duck is crisp-skinned, tender, and nicely glazed with honey, and for roughly half the price, you can get an excellent helping of tripe à la armagnac stewed in tomatoes, carrots, onions, and celery. The banker gentleman at our table gave two thumbs up to the rack of lamb, which is crisped with bread crumbs and decked with tasty little boats of eggplant. The veal is good (it’s scattered with nickels of bone marrow), and so is the prime steak (but be prepared to shell out $48 for a taste of it). If you want something a little more edgy, order the Florida snapper, which is sweetened with lemon confit and green-tomato chutney, and crusted with a thin membrane of herbs. The best of the generally excellent desserts—cool bowls of stewed Provençal figs and red wine poured over almond cake and fig ice cream, and a chocolate parfait made with cocaine-quality Caribbean chocolate spiced with salty caramel—are also inventive.
But in the end, edginess is not what the new Le Cirque is all about. During the course of his long career, Maccioni has employed his share of diva chefs and engaged in all sorts of culinary innovations. But he seems content now to take a kind of victory lap, to serve the food he himself enjoys, to mingle among the tables with his friends. This approach may find a new audience, but for now the old one is out in force. On the evenings I was there, the room was filled with ruddy-cheeked titans of industry (Sandy Weill, Teddy Forstmann), high-society raconteurs (Dominick Dunne), and assorted other ageless creatures of the New York social scene. They celebrate each other’s birthdays with cakes brought to the table under domes of spun sugar and toast each other with endless flutes of champagne. “It’s the oldest kind of restaurant in the book,” said Uncle Frank, as we watched Maccioni circulating around the room, dispensing his papal greetings, grinning his timeless platinum grin. “It’s a family joint.”
Address: 151 E. 58th St., at Lexington Ave.; 212-644-0202
Hours:Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $15 to $39. Entrées, $28 to $48.
Ideal Meal: Pig’s feet, lamb shoulder, chocolate parfait.
Note: Dinner is the time to dine here; the sun flattens the room at lunch, rendering the clientele in an unforgiving light.
Le Cirque 2000 wasn’t an exceptional restaurant when it closed, and this isn’t an exceptional restaurant either. But Sirio Maccioni is one of the city’s originals, and if you’ve never experienced the theater of Le Cirque, it might be worth a trip.