Once upon a time, Le Cirque could do no wrong. The chi-chi French restaurant, opened in 1974, was beloved by celebrities, politicians and social heavies alike; bestowed with lavish praise by critics; and renowned for its service and snobbery.
It was also responsible for the careers of Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, among many others. But times changed. By the early aughts, New Yorkers weren’t so interested in Dover sole or dress codes. All around town, “Le” and “La” restaurants closed. And in 2012, a dark cloud descended on Le Cirque, in the form of a one-star takedown in the New York Times.
“Some people have counted this restaurant out, and we are fully aware of that,” says owner Marco Maccioni, son of the restaurant’s founder, Sirio.
Top toque Olivier Reginensi voluntarily left, and for nine months, Le Cirque went without an executive chef. After consultations with former Le Cirque chefs a Prince Charming emerged: the dashing Raphael Francois (recently of London’s venerable Connaught Hotel).
His revamped menu premiered this spring. The big question now: Can the 35-year old — whose résumé lists stints at some of France’s best kitchens, including Hélène Darroze and the Hotel George V (both of which received Michelin stars) bring one of New York’s most celebrated restaurants back to its former glory?
Le Cirque’s regulars think so.
“I have been a longtime customer of Le Cirque, and I love the restaurant, but there have been a couple of less-than-stellar guys in the kitchen,’’ says William O’Shaughnessy, president of Whitney Media and editorial director of WVOX radio. “Francois is attractive — he comes out and works the dining room, and there is a new excitement there these days. I had suckling pig that was crisp and absolutely sublime, on morels and fava beans that tasted like they had come from the countryside. Usually everyone is buzzing around looking at each other but this time I was just focused on my food.’’
Part of the appeal is Francois’ healthy spin on traditional French cuisine. Whereas fish on the East 58th Street restaurant’s “heritage” menu includes black bass wrapped in buttery potatoes served on a bed of leeks cooked in cream and a red wine sauce, the chef’s new seafood additions include turbot served on seaweed with rhubarb and a bourbon vanilla sauce with just a dash of butter. “I don’t want to hide the quality and flavor,” he explains. “I use classic French as the base, but my style is lighter and fresh. If I have a dish that has a sauce with cream, I will balance it with fresh vegetables or acidity from fruit.’’
Diners are taking note. “I was there the other night before the ABT gala and I had the turbot, which was really flavorful. I was so conscious of fitting into my gown that night I normally would not have kept on eating, but it was so light,” says philanthropist Jean Shafiroff, a longtime regular. “Raphael is on a different level from the last chef.’’
Unlike most chefs starting at a new post, Francois not only has to come up with a creative menu, he also needs to master the restaurant’s extensive list of signature dishes. That means that while he is conceiving his turbot ($48) or adding gently priced but creative dishes such as softshell crab with watermelon and goat cheese ($19) he must learn how regulars like Barbara Walters want their classic lobster salad with truffle vinaigrette ($37) and how Martha Stewart likes her Dover sole ($77).
Room reopening, the moment seems ripe for classic New York restaurants like Le Cirque to have another shining moment.