Le Cirque

Thursday, August 17, 2017

AVENUE has been lucky enough to profile a number of now world-famous people, places and institutions in her forty-year history. Take this piece, from October 1976, about a scrappy French restaurant called Le Cirque.

Le Cirque is not at all what it sounds like. The name means “the circus,” and this little restaurant could hardly be called that. It’s too elegant, too chich, and also expensive.

Pocketed inconspicuously in the Mayfair Hotel on East 65th Street, this suede-banquetted spot reeks of style, reserve, and affluence. The décor, too, is rich, with tall mirrors and flocked Venetian wallpaper in soft, golden tones, but not overdone. While others may boast a rooftop view or their crystal chandeliers. Le Cirque shuns the razzle-dazzle approach. Yet there’s plenty of fine cuisine. Nobody seems to talk about this place very much, but one gets the feeling that it’s a gold mine.

Jean Vergnes is in the kitchen and Sirio Maccioni out front, revitalized refugees from the old Colony. They translate the restaurant’s name to mean simply “a good experience,” which seems to be a new, more relaxed approach to dining that might have had something to do with the disappearance of some of New York’s most legendary restaurants and, now, the appearance of so many good, new ones.

Vergnes is a cheerful, rosy-cheeked man who scampers about the room in his chef’s hat and whites to drop by at the tables of relocated regulars. Most people, Vergnes advises, no longer want the deluxe, opulent meals of grand days of The Colony, Café Chauveron, or Le Pavillon, all gone now, nor do they seem to have the gargantuan appetites or snobbery, for that matter.

Maybe not, but the Le Cirque crowd is not exactly low-life, either. Some of their friends, as they put it, are the Steven Smiths, the Arthur Schlesingers, Peter Lawford, the Peter Duchins, Princess Grace, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Claudette Colbert, Anthony Quinn, Jerome Zifkin, John Weitz, Peter Goulandris, Stavro Niarcos, David Rockefeller, Regine, Theodore Kiel, and Elsie Woodward. Not bad for a little neighborhood establishment.

The recipe is to give people what they want, rather than trying to decide for them, Vergnes says. The executive chef is Jean Louis Todeschini, and it’s his job to come up with the new dishes and “lighter” recipes. Todeschini, a thirty-year-old native of Baden-Baden, also seems to represent what may be a new generation of chefs as well, with an eclectic flair for creating the unusual acquired during stints as sous-chef at Luchow’s and Maxwell’s Plum before meeting Vergnes. Though Le Cirque’s kitchen is a relatively small one, supervising the preparation of lunch and dinner six days a week demands almost as much canny business sense as culinary ability, it seems. A single month’s food bills for fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and fish totals over $30,000, Todeschini says. Yet, it’s all in the family tradition, as he’s the oldest of four brothers working in restaurants in New York City, including Sign of the Dove and Le Cirque itself.

He may be exaggerating, but Vergnes claims, “I would serve a hamburger if a customer really wanted it. But it would be quite a hamburger.” Salvador Dali once ordered and ate a vealburger. Vergnes’ culinary liberalism ends at hotdogs. “Never!” But it’s a fact that one of Le Cirque’s best dishes in spaghetti.


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