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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bookshelf: the sorcerer’s apprentices

When The Sorcerer’s Apprentices was first published last year the book was heaped with praise on all sides. The New York Times and The Huffington Post both declared it one of the best food books fo the year. Now available in paperback, I finally got around to reading Lisa Abend’s peek into the kitchen at el Bulli. Named best restaurant in the world an amazing five times by Restaurant magazine before it caused international headlines by closing in 2011, el Bulli was the hugely popular, site of Chef Ferran Adria’s innovative culinary creations, which have now entered the popular lexicon as “molecular gastronomy.” Yet few people know that behind each of the thirty or more courses that comprised a meal at el Bulli, an army of stagiares or apprentice chefs labored at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adria’s vision. Abend’s behind-the-scenes look into el Bulli’s kitchen explores the remarkable system that Adria used to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars. And there’s the rub: Abend’s book details the quotidian grunt work when it should  be investigating the mysteriously creative mind of one the world’s most influential chefs. Focused strictly on what’s tangible, the writer leaves no room to ponder what’s unobservable. That’s not to say the book is unenjoyable. Au contraire, it’s as dishy as they come. Abend brings to life the stagiares’ stories, following them over the course of a season at el Bulli as they struggle to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come from working at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Taken together, the stories form a portrait of the international team that helped to make a meal at el Bulli so unforgettable. But Abend is no food writer. Her descriptions of the gastronomic efforts are so remarkably antiseptic that I have the sneaking suspicion she doesn’t really care for food at all. This could have just as easily been a book about a season in the offices of Norman Foster. Or the studio of Jeff Koons. It’s about teamwork – the men and women behind the genius but not about the mad rush of genius itself.  That book remains to be written.

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at the theatre: happy birthday

Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre turns 100 today. The smallest of Broadway’s venues – just 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages – The Little Theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 to honor America’s “first lady of the stage.” It was a fitting tribute given that the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had in 1982 – along with the Morosco Theatre - been torn down in an act of vandalism to make way for the ungainly Marriott Marquis Hotel. I’ve always had a bit of a sentimental bent for this theatre.  It was at The Little where I saw one of my first Broadway shows: Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Getty, a very young Matthew Broderick, and Harvey himself.  Later, I spent almost a decade toiling in the neighboring Sardi’s building, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Walking daily past what had since become the Helen Hayes I never failed to be fascinated by the ever-changing marquee which heralded the parade of plays and musicals that attempted to settle in and call it home.

Borrowing from Playbill’s “At This Theatre” (Louis Botto and Robert Viagas’ history book of Broadway venues on sale at PlaybillStore.com) here’s a very abridged look at the early years of the old theatre, as well as the all-too-common fate of its passionate producer:

A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. An aristocratic New Englander, Ames rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, then with only 299 seats, as an intimate house for the production of noncommercial plays that were too risky to stage in large Broadway theatres. The New York Times admired the theatre’s red-brick, green-shuttered exterior, its Colonial-style lobby with a fireplace, and the auditorium, which had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage. Ames’ policy — to produce “the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic” — continued to be reflected in the Little Theatre’s fare. Among the early productions, all financed solely by Ames, were George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1913); Prunella, a fantasy by Laurence Houseman and Harley Granville-Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913); and Cyril Harcourt’s comedy A Pair of Stockings (1914). By 1915 Ames was having financial problems with the Little. Because of his theatre’s small seating capacity, the impresario was losing money, even with hits. On March 11, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ames was in danger of losing his house. To prevent this, Ames planned to increase the seating capacity to 1,000, add a balcony, and make the stage larger. In 1920 Burns Mantle reported that the Little had been remodeled and the seating capacity was now 450 seats.

The true purpose of the Little Theatre, to present new playwrights and experimental dramas, was fulfilled by its next two bookings. In January 1920 Oliver Morosco presented Mamma’s Affair, a first play by Rachel Barton Butler that won a prize as the best drama written by a student of Professor George Baker’s famous “English 47” class at Harvard. Morosco presented a cash award to the author and mounted her play successfully with Effie Shannon. The other drama was Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which had been playing matinees at other theatres before it was moved to the Little. It starred Richard Bennett and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Little next housed one of its gold mines. The First Year, by actor Frank Craven, who starred in it with Roberta Arnold, proved to be a sensation. It opened on Oct. 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden and ran for 760 performances. Brooks Atkinson reported in his book “Broadway” that by 1922 Ames had lost $504,372 on the Little Theatre. His other theatre, the Booth, which he built with Lee Shubert in 1913, was a commercial house and is still successful today. When Ames died in 1937, his estate had dwindled to $77,000, and his widow was forced to move from the sprawling Ames mansion to a small cottage on their estate.

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the cull: beloved no more

Nothing quite destroys the essential truthiness of a word like it’s nonsensical repetition. So in order to save these poor words for future generations, I’m starting a new occasional post here called The Cull, which calls for their temporary suspension due to excessive overuse, exaggeration, and/or just plain egregious misuse. (Travel and lifestyle reps take note: I actually do read what you write from time to time.)

2012’s word-most-in-need-of-saving: beloved. As in “This new family musical is based on the beloved New York Times best selling book.” Or “The hotel’s beloved holiday tradition of tea in front of the fire returns for yet another season of smiles.” Or “You’ll be inspired by the wit and wisdom of beloved author and TV spokesperson.” It’s a Wonderful Life is beloved; your elderly Aunt Meemaw is beloved; Toni Morrison’s Beloved is beloved. A hotel is not. Nor is a celebrity stylist. (Or any book written in this century for that matter.)

Beloved, no more. Until we meet again.

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