Well, well, well, what do we have here…Le Cirque for lunch? How indulgent! Let’s just get this out of the way: it was restaurant week. Many of our complaints probably stemmed from that fact, not that it’s a valid excuse, but since it’s our first visit we have no control against which to compare.
But let’s back up a bit.
Restaurant week, in Manhattan at least, is seemingly a great deal; for $24/35 (lunch/dinner) you’re able to have a three course meal at numerous restaurants across the borough that you usually couldn’t otherwise fit into your normal life. We don’t have a “Taste of New York,” as far as I know, so this is the equivalent.
With that being said, it never seems to work out that way. Either all of the good places are quickly taken, and/or your colleagues aren’t able to meet on whatever date you had in mind. You probably end up eating Asian fusion on a random Wednesday, hate yourself for it, and promptly all agree to never talk about restaurant week again. I have done that at least twice.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find somebody — L — to enjoy an afternoon lunch at a restaurant that’s always been at the top of my list, Le Cirque. Days before the event we had heartedly agreed that under no stretch of the imagination would we have “passed” for normal Le Cirque diners — restaurant week or not — so we decided to just have fun with it.
We arrived on time and were promptly seated at what appeared to be a good table by a window near the front. The waiter had trouble looking us directly in the eye, and he neglected to give us a drink menu. This would set the tone for what would end up being one of the worst service experiences in recent memory. He sort of just flung the paper daily menus onto my plate, not even really bothering to hand one to my dining guest. “Eeeps, they really do see us for the frauds we are,” I thought to myself!
After reviewing the menu L ordered cheese ravioli with light tomato sauce, mini burgers with fries, and creme brulee; and I ordered the pork, porcini and pistachio terrine with pickled ramp and parsley salad, the skate a la Grenobloise with cauliflower purée, and finally the plum tart with crème fraîche ice cream. Oh and a martini. A “work” martini. I’d never done that. It was pleasant. Pleasantly $19? No. But still nice.
Anyway, so as we’re just starting to catch up after placing our orders, an older woman, dressed in her very best 1994 Upper East Side old money chic, waltzes by our table and snags one of the waiters. “Isn’t one of these tables available? Or over there. Give us one of those tables.” It was as if she were walking into a dim sum house, barking orders at the greeter to seat her where she wanted. Was Le Cirque her Oriental Garden? Gosh, I want to be that rich. But the would I have to dress that way? Hmm, toss up.
Though this visit remains my only experience with Le Cirque (and not to belabor this point too much more…it was restaurant week), and I hate to claim I understood the atmosphere in only the two hours that elapsed, but it seemed like a strange dichotomy was in place. On the one hand you had your old money regular customers, just filing in from a busy day of presumably shopping, dog walking, and hair touch ups. Then on the other hand you had your casual diners, possibly touring Manhattan, and feeling lucky that they were able to snag a coveted seat. It felt very manufactured to me, and that feeling wasn’t helped by the architecture and design of the restaurant. It’s in the newish Bloomberg building (that crazy circular glass building with the atrium), and you can easily tell that the zany angles, undulating floor plan with multiple hidden rooms, impossible ceiling height, and custom two-story transparent wine cave were custom to the restaurant at time of construction.
I mention all of this in the context of the food because that too was attempting to straddle the border between old and new, yet somehow impress us with shear classiness in the process. (Spoiler alert: If you have to explain your classiness, you’re not classy.) Take my terrine, which on the surface is a typical country pate of sorts and something especially common in haute cuisine. It was laying on a bed of white crystalized [molecular gastronomized?] chalky bits of something I couldn’t identify. Why were they there? To impress? To heighten the flavor of what I verbally described to L as an “utterly boring” terrine? Well they didn’t help, that’s for sure. I was supremely disappointed; it was like eating a purposely flavorless loaf of meat. So sad. Maybe they overcooked it.
L’s ravioli were also quite unimpressive. She even went so far as to describe them as “straight up Marie Calendar frozen ravioli.” Ouch.
The next courses were slightly improved: my skate was cooked well enough, if not totally conventionally, and L’s mini burgers were…you guessed it, acceptable but not memorable. Had we ordered the wrong things? Should we have footed the extra cash for the premium Lobster risotto or the flounder “Le Cirque?”
By the time our desserts came, we were ready to skidaddle. The service up to this point had gotten on my nerves, and we were already describing the lunch as “pretty terrible but still fun” as if to justify the expense. The waiter would appear randomly to take a drink order or check in, only to disappear for twenty minutes inexplicably. We were literally the closest table to the bar, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
My plum tart was actually pretty tasty, though the utensils I was given — a fork and a spoon — made it difficult to cut into the tart. Plus there was some dried-on crud on that plate. Gross, dude. L barely touched her creme brulee and opted for a coffee. After what must have been another twenty minute gap, the waiter arrived to take our plates and neglected the coffee. Seeing another long pause in our future, I quickly asked for the check, and upon settling that we somehow “neglected” to give him a big tip.