top 100: le cirque

If you don’t believe it possible that any single establishment could embody the look, attitude, and (un)consciousness of an era, look no further than Le Cirque. In the go-go 1980’s Sirio Maccioni’s restaurant at the Mayfair Hotel was where the elite came to meet and eat. On any given evening you might find the Nancy’s (Reagan, Sinatra, and Kissinger, if you have to ask) cheek by jowl on a red leather banquette alongside European royalty, assorted movie stars, Jackie O, and an editor or two from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair furiously scribbling it all down. It wasn’t, however, solely about the intermingling of the power elite – it was also about the food. David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, Sottha Khun, Bill Telepan, and Geoffrey Zakarian all spent quality time in the kitchen at Le Cirque. And it should be remembered that under Daniel Boulud the restaurant ascended to four-star status, repeatedly regaled by the New York Times. Few people would argue that as the 20th century drew to an optimistic close Le Cirque epitomized not only everything a restaurant should be but also everything a city could be. Today – despite the bonfire of many an interim vanity – much of what made it great remains. For one there’s the impeccable white-jacketed service fronted by the most hospitable hosts in town. You are welcomed like an old friend – more to the point, an important friend – into one of the more elegant dining rooms in the city. The ceilings might soar double or triple-height but the mood is nevertheless cozy and intimée at a banquette overlooking the room. Le Cirque may have lost some of its buzzworthiness and fallen out of favor with the Page Six set but the air remains rarefied. If anything, the diminished spotlight only serves to focus the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food, which I’m happy to say succeeds from the first amuse to the final petit four. In between, a half-dozen meaty Blue Point oysters on the half shell are cause for celebration. So, too, a restrained rectangle of foie gras with quince jelly. The fish is impeccable: both turbot a la plancha atop olive oil crushed potatoes and john dory in a rich bouillabaisse broth make for satisfying main courses. And I dare you to find a desert to trump the ethereal Floating Island. Under the toque of Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi there remains a handful of oldies but goodies like lobster risotto, diver scallops with black truffle in puff pastry, baked Alaska and Chateaubriand for two, but for the most part Le Cirque has gracefully found its feet in the 21st century, moving beyond those flashy holdovers from another era – society swans included.

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under the spell of amber

My first Michelin-starred meal in Hong Kong turned out to be quite the doozy. Under the guidance of Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus, Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental has two of those coveted stars. But wait, there’s more:  the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” Awards ranked the eatery at number 37 earlier this year. Not only is it the only Hong Kong restaurant on the list, it’s the only restaurant in Hong Kong to have made the list since 2005. (I’d been told the city is emerging with enormous gastronomic energy – this factoid only served to solidify my stomach’s growing expectations.) Needless to say lunch at Amber did not disappoint. From the amusing amuse of foie gras lollipops shellacked with beetroot to the perfectly-formed olive-studded focaccia, my meal was a languorous mix of creative aesthetics and fresh, contemporary flavors grounded in traditional French technique. Dungeness crab with crème fraiche, avocado, Granny Smith apple and cucumber was so composed I almost hated to mess the plate. Line-caught Atlantic cod was roasted with the skin on and served with salted celeriac and Iberian pork neck in a Cabernet reduction that perfectly played off the meatiness of the fish. For dessert a terrarium of tiramisu was inspired – so, too, the cheese trolley – yet the  bliss of dark chocolate gunaja with speculoos crumbs was downright genius.  This wasn’t at all what I expected of Hong Kong – but I’m so happy to have had my expectations thoroughly upended.

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