June 29, 2007 | BITE: My Journal
It Takes a Village: Le Cirque's Makeover

Sirio's granddaughter Stella is the special of the day at Le Cirque.  

        Saturday in Tuscany, Sirio Maccioni -- a conquering hero in Italy and a favorite son of Montecatini -- will serve crème brulée to 600 guests celebrating Mouton Rothschild’s joint venture with the Castellare family in a new winery designed by architect Renzo Piano. What the Baroness Phillippine de Rothschild is looking for, of course, is another aristocratic offspring like Opus One, that sprang from the mating with Robert Mondavi.

        Globally, Sirio is hot. He is pursued by powers in Qatar. The Lanesborough Hotel in London has a deal he may not want to resist. “MGM wants me to create the best Italian restaurant in the world,” he has told me.  A brilliant liaison in Paris is on hold due to unresolved legal matters.  Yet here in New YorkLe Cirque limps.  The ringmaster who once commanded banquettes of bouffant blondes, fussy titans and deposed presidents is now surrounded with a posse of makeover artists, adoring sycophants, adoring detractors and the taunting of the unadoring. No wonder he smiles with such bewilderment. The newest Le Cirque is simply not yet the restaurant it needs to be.

         Opening with Le Cirque 2000, chef Pierre Schaedelin stifled the chance for a drama -- a new toque, a possible star, another budding Daniel Boulud. The belated arrival of new blood, Christophe Ballanca, last chef of Lalaland’s defunct l’Orangerie, has not stirred up a soufflé. Sirio’s right hand at the podium, Benito Sevarin, a member of the family for thirty years, has gone.  Was he pushed?  Or did he feel crowded and decide to bail out?  No one will say.

        As Sirio’s landlord and enabler, Steve Ross committed Vornado to spending millions to give the grand master an $18 million dream house in their new Bloomberg Building. So it’s not exactly sheer philanthropy that he hired consultant Elizabeth Blau to coach the befuddled family back on course.                      

Our captain presents the $80 roast chicken for two tableside. Photo: Steven Richter

Ironically, or perhaps even providentially, it was Sirio who gave Blau her first job out of Cornell Hotel and Restaurant School. She was that towering brunette in his entourage when Circo finally opened in a snowstorm in l995.  Then, when the Maccionis floated outposts of Le Cirque and Circo at Bellagio in Las Vegas, Blau hit Las Vegas, too.  Working to feed Steve Wynn’s insatiable appetite for star toques, she became a legendary chef wrangler.

        “It’s a labor of love for me,” Blau described her role to me. “I’m trying to help get it back on course. It will be hard to replace Benito, of course.  He was family.” She struggled to put a positive spin on it.  Resuscitating the victim was not impossible.  “Circo is 12 years old and it’s doing better than ever.”

        Indeed, it may take a village to iron out the wrinkles at Le Cirque. Hal
Rubenstein has been on the case, too. Rubenstein, no longer a restaurant critic, now moonlights fulltime from his editor’s swivel chair at InStyle as a restaurant consultant. “Sirio needs a lot of help,” Hal told me after landing in Tucson, having done a day’s worth of writing on the plane. Always a demon of energy, Hal not only looks like a comic book super hero, he multitasks like one. “Sirio’s a terrific man. He just got off track. The new chef is not formed yet. The room, the décor, all of it needs work.”

        Supposedly Sirio had asked former Food Network stalwart David Rosengarten for advice, too.  Rosengarten, whose effervescent review of the new chef’s menu at Le Cirque, at www.DavidRosengarten.com, didn’t seem to think he’d been asked to actually consult when I called to check.  He probably thinks his rave is helpful. “…Hitting its stride in the most spectacular of ways,” he writes. The highly influential Batterberrys -- Michael and Ariane of Food Arts --wax poetic, too.

        But in Blau’s book, friends who tell Sirio the food is wonderful are confusing the issue and making her job more difficult. I get the distinct impression she would sweep the kitchen clean and start all over.

        It’s not that Le Cirque’s regulars aren’t coming. It’s partly that they are not the bold faces getting bold-faced in the right places these days, and they aren’t three-times-a-week habitués, as they were on 65th Street. And there is no stunning parade of kiss-kissy international vagabonds and von Beautifuls turning tables yet again at 10 p.m. as in golden olden times.

        At dinner recently the most exciting moment was when the fire alarm went off and the waiters who didn’t actually yawn, raced around reassuring everyone, as if it were just an everyday inconvenience. When someone dropped a full tray, there were nervous sniggers. I actually liked the freshness and jazzy flavors of a tuna roll with mango and galangal that was sent by the chef as a gift.  But that was it. The gazpacho had a medicinal after taste.  A zucchini and parmesan-stuffed zucchini flower was a pitiful attempt to do something new with a flower whose only reason for existing is to be stuffed with fine mozzarella and deep fried perfectly, the way Sirio’s wife Egi and his sister do it.

        Our host for the evening said he wanted to see what an $80 whole roasted chicken would be like. He happens to be a mogul who deals in chickens. Captains presented the bird to us in its roasting pan tableside.  Wonderfully old-world service…I liked that…I would have liked it more if they hadn’t seemed confused and slightly embarrassed.  I think it was worth at least $18 just for the preview.  But the bird wasn’t miraculously crisp or artfully seasoned.  It was just overcooked.

         When Le Cirque first opened, I thought the diversity of its staff rather charming as opposed to its mostly white men in tuxedos speaking French and Italian at 65th Street.  “One black, one brown, one yellow, one woman…one of everything,” as my not-very-PC friend put it.  It was he who objected that son Mauro circled the room, resting the baby on each table.  Is it true? There was no baby, no Mauro, no sign of Sirio, the night of our $80 chicken.  But I like to imagine it.

        By the time Sirio flew off to Pisa for the big dinner at the new winery, a party for 50 had grown to 250, and by the time I found him by phone last night at dinner, it had grown to 600.  He had suggested that his friend Lorenzo Viani share the kitchen. Dashing and handsome Lorenzo, the Sirio Maccioni of Forti de Marmi, had closed his restaurant for the night to do ferro risotto and scallops en brochette.  Sirio’s team was assigned the bass in potato crust and, of course, the crème brulee.

        He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually slept.  But I could tell he was happy to be wrapped in love -- a conquering hero to the Tuscans -- far away from unpredictable fire alarms and cranky critics.
        He will hate this story and I will get a scolding phone call from Mauro, as I did when I said something critical about the party room last time I wrote. But I am sad because I love Sirio.  Many of us who were among his pampered pets at the original circus on East 65th Street have a soft spot for the child of Tuscany who wore his dead father’s shoes to his first day at school and got laughed at. And was kicked in the rear end and banished from the kitchen of his first job in Paris to come back when he learned French.  Who got a job at the Folies Bergeres through his friend from Montecatini who had changed his name to Yves Montand.  Who couldn’t get work in a French restaurant in New York City because he was Italian.  And who emerged as the greatest host of his time, an arbiter of what highborn heir or clever rogue got the best table. Who stood at the top of the steps at St. Thomas, directing who should sit where at Malcolm Forbes’ funeral.
        He is still angry at the insults and humiliation he suffered along the way.  That vulnerability makes him more loveable.  Of course, he is stubborn too and a pain in the ass…and if he had listened to me (and so many others who love him), he would have retired when he turned off the neon and closed Le Cirque 2000. He would have left his three sons to build their empire. But he could not retire.  He was too proud…too much the father unable to leave his sons on their own.  This week he told Florence Fabricant in the Times that he would turn the bar into an enoteca in fall.  Would Elizabeth Blau have wished he had waited a bit to announce it? 

        “Well, the plan is not fully flushed out,” Blau admits.  “But it will be more loungey.  The furniture is all custom order. It hasn’t been ordered yet.”

       Is it too late for Le Cirque? Or will the makeover masters find a formula…design revelations…a gifted chef and a pastry genie? And when I wake up tomorrow, will I be forty again?



Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers