Entries in Sirio Maccioni & family (8)


Circo's Festival of Black Kale

It’s a good year to be checking in at the Maccioni family restaurants—Le Cirque, Sirio, and Circo. The patriarch, Sirio Maccioni, will receive a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award later this year; his three sons now tend to his international empire. At Le Cirque, there’s a new chef (Raphael Francois), hired after Pete Wells filed a brutal one-star review in late 2012.

There was a less heralded change last year at Circo (pronounced “cheer-ko”), where Alfio Longo took over the kitchen. Now that he has settled in, the chef hopes to serve special menus every couple of months, focused on seasonal themes—currently, black kale from the Maccionis’ native Tuscany.

The four-course menu (click on the image for a larger copy) will be served for just five days, March 17–21, at both lunch and dinner.

If this meal is indicative of the chef’s talents, Circo is in good hands. One might worry about monotony in a menu built on one ingredient, but he deploys it so cleverly that one is scarcely aware of the repetition. And he is not afraid of challenging the diner: a rich tripe florentine, a chickpea pancake called a farinata, and a cuttlefish stew, are among the choices.

They are practically giving it away for just $49. If Michael White did that, he’d be hailed as a genius. By way of comparison, the four-course menu at White’s least expensive Italian restaurant, Osteria Morini, is $70. Last time I was there, they had paper napkins, orange placemats, and no tablecloths.

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Sirio Ristorante

Note: Sirio closed in February 2015. A French–American restaurant called Perrine replaced it.


Sirio Ristorante is the latest offering from the Maccioni family, the clan behind Le Cirque and Circo in New York, and half-a-dozen similar places in Las Vegas, India, and the Dominican Republic.

The patriarch, Sirio Maccioni, was once the top maitre d’ in the city. He still holds court at the mother ship, but day-to-day management of the company is now in the hands of his three sons.

There is some evidence that the empire is not what it used to be: last year, Pete Wells knocked Le Cirque all the way down from three stars to one, whereupon they fired the chef. He has not yet been replaced, to my knowledge; his name still appears on the website.

Still, in multiple visits to Le Cirque and Circo, particularly the former, I’ve found that they can certainly dazzle you on occasion. (This would be the case, even if you discount a comped visit to Le Cirque last year at the restaurant’s invitation.) We were dazzled again at Sirio last week. As far as I can tell, we weren’t recognized. None of Sirio’s sons, nor the maitre d’, visited our table; nothing was comped. The food was simply superb.

Our experience does not square with either Adam Platt of New York, nor Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post, both who gave it just one star. Even Gael Greene, who is recognized everywhere she goes, filed a negative review.

Most of the critics—Platt in particular—are predictably hostile to restaurants that cater to the affluent, as an Upper East Side restaurant in The Pierre hotel, facing Central Park, is inevitably expected to do. To criticize the mission is absurd. Review it on its own terms, or don’t go. Nevertheless, the conclusion on reading those reviews is that you can have a bad meal here. We had an excellent one.

The city would be a poorer place without restaurants like Sirio. How nice is it to walk into a beautiful dining room, be served by a professional staff, sit in comfortable chairs, order from a wine list with real depth, and carry on a conversation in a normal speaking voice? Even if they served nothing but twinkies, there’d be value in that. Yes, it’s expensive—unavoidable in this location. You don’t have to go every day.

This is the space formerly occupied by Le Caprice, which flopped a year ago after a short stint. It too was panned by nearly everyone. The guts of the long, narrow space have the same layout as before. The Maccionis’ favorite designer, Adam Tihany, has given the dining room a colorful upgrade. There are no tablecloths, the restaurant’s lone concession to fashion.

The menu, I understand, has scaled back some of the opening prices. Still, you can spend a lot here. Antipasti are $14–36 (average about $20), primi $24–33, secondi $28–59 (most in the $30s), contorni $9.


Bread service (above left) was the lone disappointment: by the time we arrived for our late meal, most of the bread was stale.

Carpaccio di Manzo ($21; above right) was a wonderful starter: thinly sliced beef, quail eggs, baby bok choy, lemongrass, and shaved truffles. I wondered if the truffles could possibly be real at this price, but they certainly seemed to be.


Sea bass ($36; above left) came with delicious potato and artichoke chips, with a luscious caper cream sauce (above right).


Salmon ($34; above left) belied the myth that restaurant salmon has to be boring. Roasted with Brussels sprouts and served with a caviar sauce, it was rich and deeply satisfying.

The wine list went on for many pages and had the usual trophy wines you’d expect at such an establishment, but a 2003 Loire valley white at the back of the volume (photo of the label at the top of this post), at just $55, was magical, with a deep, musky, mature flavor that wowed us immediately.

Service was polished and correct. I would not call it elegant: by the standards of the neighborhood, it’s upscale but not luxuriious. Downtown, it would be impossible. Our reservation was at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening. It was not full at that hour, but there were a couple of parties that arrived after us.

My isolated voice probably won’t persuade very many people that Sirio is wonderful. Platt, Cuozzo, et al, have much larger megaphones than we. But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Sirio Ristorante (795 Fifth Avenue at 61st Street, Pierre Hotel, Upper East Side)

Food: Modern Italian with French technique
Service: Upscale but not luxurious
Ambiance: A comfortable dining room in a five-star hotel

Why? Sirio won’t be for everyone, but it fulfills its mission almost perfectly 


Le Cirque

There’s a tradition at Le Cirque not quite like any other in town. Sirio Maccioni, the patriarch of the family business, still holds court, as he has done since 1974, and before that at the fabled Colony, which once defined elegant high society dining in Manhattan.

Ironically, Mr. Maccioni conceived of Le Cirque as a more hip, casual alternative to The Colony. As William Grimes explained, in a New York Times obituary of Jean Vergnes, the restaurant’s founding chef:

Le Cirque, as the name implied, would dispense with the fussiness of the old-style haute cuisine restaurants and incorporate some of the pizzazz that Mr. Maccioni had observed at Maxwell’s Plum, Warner LeRoy’s wildly popular restaurant for swinging singles.

Today, with The Colony and others of its ilk long gone, Le Cirque is practically the last surviving example of the very formality that Maccioni had sought to replace. Once progressive, it is now the old guard.

Le Cirque is now in its third location, and as of four months ago, under a new chef, Olivier Reginensi (left). To be exact, he is Le Cirque’s ninth executive chef—so the website tells us—the rare example of a restaurant that wants to remind you how many names have passed through the kitchen’s revolving door.

It’s an impressive list. At a 35th anniversary dinner in 2009, the chefs who came back to cook included Alain Allegretti, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Iacopo Falai, Craig Hopson, Michael Lomonaco, Pierre Schaedelin, Pierre Poulin, Dieter Schorner, Alex Stratta, Bill Telepan, Jacques Torres and Geoffrey Zakarian (see photo below).

If you expand the list to include those who’ve worked for a chef who formerly worked at Le Cirque, you’ve got a Who’s Who of the NYC culinary universe, including many who now cook in idioms far removed from the classics Le Cirque is best known for. What the city’s dining scene would have been, without Le Cirque, is difficult to imagine.

Management realizes there’s a delicate balancing act between playing up the old tradition and developing a new one. As a Eater.com reported when Chef Reginensi was appointed:

The Le Cirque team is hoping the new push will bring the brand to new diners while reminding current and former clients that they haven’t been put out to pasture. “It will show people this is not your dad’s Le Cirque any more.” says Carlo Mantica, Le Cirque’s co-general manager.

The perception that Le Cirque is strictly old-school is difficult to efface, so pervasive has it become. By today’s standards, it is comparatively formal, with one of the most expensive à la carte menus in town, and jackets required in the main dining room. (The adjoining café is less formal and less costly.)

How to attract a new generation? Sirio’s three sons, who now run Le Cirque and its sister restaurants day to day, are alive to the problem. The hipsters dining on park benches in Bushwick won’t be coming here anytime soon. But the recent success of premium menus at places like Brooklyn Fare and Atera, to say nothing of the continuing appeal of the traditional four-stars, shows that there are still plenty of diners willing to spend big in restaurants.

Mauro Maccioni invited us recently to sample Chef Reginensi’s new menu as his guest at the chef’s table, just inside the kitchen. All of the usual caveats about a comped meal apply: we experienced Le Cirque as few do. Restaurants can adjust the service for VIPs, but the food is what it is—and at Le Cirque it’s excellent.

The cuisine has always been difficult to classify. Its roots are French, but the owners are Italian, and a spaghetti primavera is a fixture on the menu. And there is ample room for a chef’s individual expression on the flesh of the restaurant’s classic French bones.


The amuse bouche (above left) was a tweak on traditional escargots, with Burgundy snails, parsley, and croutons, baked in tiny, half-eggshell ceramic bowls. Here they’re lighter and sweeter than usual, and not as garlicky.

Then came a duo (above right) of very good octopus with white bean and tomato confit; and a langoustine on a bed of spring vegetables (carrots, snow peas, leeks, and red peppers).


Next came a very rich rabbit porchetta (above left), similar to a roulade or a ballotine, mixed with vegetables, one of the more technically impressive dishes on the menu. We were also quite pleased with asparagus (above right) with a poached egg and morel mushrooms.


I believe we were served two pastas, one of which we neglected to photograph. Fresh peas, ricotta gnocchi, and morel mushrooms (above left) were wonderful, even if the morels were repeated from the previous course.

I also made note of ravioli stuffed with vegetables, braised romaine lettuce, prosciutto, and mozzarella. It was difficult to make out all of those ingredients, but it was the hit of the evening: “like eating oysters,” my girlfriend said.

Sole Florentine (above right) was another techical achievement, with spinach, crayfish, and a red and white sauce unfamiliar to me, which the chef described as a sauce cardinal.


Duck (above left) was comparatively pedestrian and slightly overpowered by olives, though the pairing with turnip was better than I would have expected.

Romina Peixoto, Le Cirque’s first female pastry chef, deserves to be better known. Baked Alaska (above left), was flambéed tableside. This was followed by Rhubarb (below left), a lemongrass panna cotta, pistachio financier, and rhubarb sorbet; and a Tropical Vacherin (below right), with mango sorbet, pinapple forzen yogurt, tropical cilntro salsa.



We concluded with an embarrassment of petits fours, the last of these presented in a small upholstered jewelbox.

Some of my readers will no doubt believe that a comped review is compromised—although I’ve been here twice before on my own dime, and also to the same owners’ Italian place, Osteria del Circo, so clearly this is cuisine and an atmosphere I am predisposed to like. Those who find Le Cirque old-fashioned, may fail to appreciate how many careers it has launched, and just how progressive it originally was.

Keeping Le Cirque in the conversation is a tall order. I’m glad I can watch as a fan.

Le Cirque (151 E. 58th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)


Osteria del Circo

It’s fascinating to read the old reviews of Osteria del Circo, way back when it was new, in 1996. People were fighting like mad to get into the place. In the Times, Ruth Reichl awarded two stars.

The restaurant is the brainchild of the Maccioni family, the same folks behind Le Cirque. The circus theme pervades the Adam Tihany design, which is remarkably clever. Quite apart from the food, I enjoyed just looking at Osteria del Circo.

Nowadays, you can get in whenever you want, though it’s in no danger of going out of business—the space was mostly full by 7:00 on a Saturday evening. It does a lot of pre-theater business: we were asked twice if we had a show to see (we did). The server cautioned that we should get our order in early. Sure enough, we got noticeably less attention after the crowds turned up.

The cuisine is Tuscany through an American lens, with a Pat LaFreida veal chop having appeared on the menu; is there anyplace he doesn’t sell to? You won’t pay what you would at Le Cirque, but this probably won’t be a cheap night out. The overly long menu has a wide range of prices, from pizzas (around $20 each) to a ribeye for two ($38pp).

The kitchen did well by a simple salad ($14; above left) of arugula, endive, sliced apple, bacon, and blue cheese croquettes. My son loved the antipasto appetizer ($19; above right) with salumi, crostini, and marinated vegetables.

Tagliolini with tomato sauce and basil ($14 as an appetizer; above left) is one of the more simplistic pasta dishes. But the pumkin tortelli with foie gras ($29 as a main course; above right) was first rate.

Neither of the entrées wowed. Spicy Brandy Flambéed Shrimps (above left) sound fancy, but it’s not a very impressive plate for $36. I suspect my son would have preferred fries to fried zucchini and eggplant strips. Veal scallopine (above right) was merely competent, bearing in mind its $34 price tag.

The service comes with none of Le Cirque’s legendary “attitude” towards the hoi polloi. The staff happily seated our incomplete party, plied us with house-made bread, and promptly took our drinks order. The wine list had a good selection at lower prices; we settled on a red for $42.

We left well fed and well cared for. All of the food was at least competent, and a few dishes were better than that. With the right selections you can dine well here, but it’s expensive: the bill for three people was $212 before tax and tip.

Osteria del Circo (120 W. 55th St. between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, West Midtown)

Food: *
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: *


The Café at Le Cirque

Like most luxury restaurants these days, Le Cirque has a formal dining room and a dressed-down café, where reservations aren’t taken and the menu is a bit more approachable.

Since our meal in the main dining room almost two years ago, Le Cirque has acquired a new chef: Craig Hopson, formerly of Picholine and One if By Land, Two if By Sea. None of the city’s major critics has reviewed Le Cirque since Hopson took over. It holds three Times stars, courtesy of a Bruni re-review in February 2008. It almost pained him to dine there:

At Le Cirque you will indeed eat too much food, of a kind that neither your physician nor your local Greenpeace representative would endorse, in a setting of deliberate pompousness, at a sometimes ludicrous expense.The ravioli, all three of them, are $35.

But that has long been the way of certain restaurants, which exist to be absurd, to speak not to our better angels but to our inner Trumps, making us feel pampered and reckless and even a little omnipotent, if only for two hours and three courses with a coda of petits fours.

And while I’m not calling for the spread of these establishments (or the massacre of Chilean sea bass), I’m charged with noting when one of them fulfills its chosen mission with classic panache. Le Cirque now does.

Has ever a critic awarded three stars to a restaurant, while saying that he would prefer to see no more like it?

I had an evening commitment on the Upper East Side during Restaurant Week, and as Le Cirque would be on the way, I decided to drop in. The Dining Room was fully committed, even at 5:45 p.m., but the adjoining café was empty (it would begin to fill up later on). The website advises: “Jackets are required for gentlemen in the dining room and suggested in the café.” I was wearing one, but it did not seem to matter.

The café is a comfortable space, dominated by a huge cylindrical wine tower. In the oddly-shaped room, two of the walls have ceiling-height windows that face on Third Avenue and 58th Street, admitting plenty of natural light.

Lately, the owners have been struggling to fill the café. Evidently, the idea of dropping into Le Cirque for an order of sliders hasn’t caught on. Offers to drop in for free fried chicken to watch major sporting events (sixth game of the World Series; Thursday night Jets–Bills game) have dropped in my mailbox with regularity.

There is a dizzying array of options at Le Cirque. The main carte offers a pre-theatre prix fixe at $48, a tasting menu at $120, and a regular prix fixe at $95. You can also order à la carte, which I don’t recall before, with some of the highest prices in town: appetizers $25–30 (most in the high 20s), pastas $28–38, mains $42–70.

The café menu, also called the wine bar menu, has tasting plates from $14–35, along with a three-course “restaurant week” prix fixe for $35, which was available all summer long. Apparently you can order from any of these menus in the café, but the server gave me only the restaurant week menu, as they said it’s what most of the café visitors want.

No one should be under the illusion that they’re getting a $98 value for $35. When the price for three courses is less than the cheapest dining room entrée, you’re obviously not going to get the restaurant’s best stuff. None of the three dishes I had is shown on the main dining room carte. But I did have a modestly satisfying meal at a respectable price, with two forgettable dishes and one I would happily order again.

Gnocchi with tripe ragu (above left) was pedestrian, but I loved (at the price) the pavé of veal with zucchini, tomato, and pecorino romano (above right). The veal was nicely crisped, but tender on the inside. I was afraid of another humdrum tomato broth, but both the tomato and the zucchini were vibrantly flavored. The cheese didn’t add much, though.

Dessert, a lemon merengue pie, was competently executed but rather ordinary, and the accompanying sorbet paired with it poorly.

Café diners get the same bread service as the main dining room—not that it is anything to write home about. Coffee ($4) came in its own silver pot. Service overall was attentive and pleasant. The café has its own pared-down wine list (though I’m sure you can get the bigger one), and prices by the glass are reasonable. A 2003 Haut Médoc was $15.

It may not offer the main dining room’s culinary fireworks, but the Café is a fine way to enjoy an inexpensive dinner if you happen to be in the area.

The Café at Le Cirque (151 E. 58th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)


The Payoff: Le Cirque

Yesterday, Frank Bruni awarded the expected three stars to Le Cirque. Even so, he made no attempt to conceal his disdain for the classic luxury that this restaurant has always represented:

At Le Cirque you will indeed eat too much food…at a sometimes ludicrous expense.

But that has long been the way of certain restaurants, which exist to be absurd, to speak not to our better angels but to our inner Trumps, making us feel pampered and reckless and even a little omnipotent, if only for two hours and three courses with a coda of petits fours.

And while I’m not calling for the spread of these establishments…, I’m charged with noting when one of them fulfills its chosen mission with classic panache. Le Cirque now does.

Has a NYT critic ever called a restaurant “absurd”, noting he’s not keen to see any more like it, while awarding three stars?

What’s absurd is that Frank Bruni would describe the restaurant in those terms, when all Le Cirque is doing is what it has always done, which in the past the Times has considered a three or four-star experience. The only thing that has changed is the critic.

Both Eater and New York Journal considered the trifecta a sure thing this week. We both win just $1 on our hypothetical bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $63.50   $79.67
Gain/Loss +1.00   +1.00
Total $64.50   $80.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 29–13   30–12

Rolling the Dice: Le Cirque

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni re-reviews one of the city’s few remaining grand dames of French glory, Le Cirque. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 9-1
One Star: 8-1
Two Stars: 5-1
Three Stars: EVEN
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: Our view is the same as Eater’s: any outcome except three stars would be extremely surprising. Let’s roll out the BruniTrends®:

This is the fourth time Bruni has re-visited one of his own past reviews—his first review of Le Cirque was just over eighteen months ago. In each prior case (Eleven Madison Park, Craftsteak, Alto), the result was an upgrade. Indeed, most of Bruni’s re-reviews—even when the prior review was by another critic—have resulted in a change of rating.

No one has suggested that Le Cirque has gotten worse over the last eighteen months, and there is quite a bit of evidence that it has gotten better. As Adam Platt noted in his year-end round-up for New York, “perhaps the most impressive kitchen overhaul of all has taken place at Le Cirque, where Sirio Maccioni’s latest chef, Christophe Bellanca, has expanded the pricey, formerly stolid menu to include a whole variety of sophisticated, radically pricey new treats.”

We also rated Le Cirque three stars when we visited late last year.

If this review turns out as we are predicting, other BruniTrends® will need to be re-calibrated. In over 3½ years on the job, Bruni has never yet awarded three or four stars to a classically luxurious French restaurant, unless he was re-affirming (or reducing) a prior critic’s rating. One could safely have assumed that it was not a format that interested him. After tomorrow, we may no longer be able to make such assumptions.

To the best of my recollection, this is the first time Eater has set even-money odds on any outcome, and I believe it is also the largest gap between the most likely and second-most likely outcomes. There are good reasons for this: everything points to three stars this week.

The Bet: We are betting that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Le Cirque.


Le Cirque

Kalina via Eater

Note: This is a review of Le Cirque under Chef Christophe Bellanca, who left the restaurant in October 2008. Click here for a review under chef Olivier Reginensi, who is the chef as of 2012.

Click here for a review of the Café at Le Cirque.


Le Cirque is one of the few remaining bastions of classic old-French luxury in New York. Now in its third location, it was at various times a three or four-star restaurant, but critics hammered it when the current version opened in 2006. Frank Bruni and Adam Platt both returned two-star verdicts, which for this type of restaurant is equivalent to condemnation.

Much beloved of celebrities and the monied set, Le Cirque didn’t need Frank Bruni’s blessing. Owner Siro Maccioni could simply have shrugged, as the owners of the Four Seasons apparently did after a similar Bruni smackdown. Instead, he went to work. He fired chef Pierre Schaedelin, bringing in Christophe Bellanca to replace him. The review cycle is over, so Le Cirque is stuck with its two stars for now. But at least Adam Platt recognized the improvement in his 2007 year-end retrospective:

But perhaps the most impressive kitchen overhaul of all has taken place at Le Cirque, where Sirio Maccioni’s latest chef, Christophe Bellanca, has expanded the pricey, formerly stolid menu to include a whole variety of sophisticated, radically pricey new treats. The grandly impersonal room underneath the Bloomberg tower remains filled with the usual collection of grimly smiling contessas and aging plutocrats tottering to and fro in their pin-striped suits. But when I dropped in not very long ago, there were an impressive nine specials of the day on the menu, along with all sorts of newfangled entrées: dim-sum-size ravioli swollen with foie gras, carefully deboned portions of squab crusted with crushed walnuts, and ribbons of chestnut-flavored pappardelle decked with braised pheasant, which the plutocrats merrily supplemented one night (for a $185 fee) with shavings of white truffle shipped direct, via Maccioni’s fabled connection, from the hills of Alba.

(I don’t quite understand why, if he thinks the improvement is that significant, Platt does not also upgrade his two-star rating, but I’ll save that rant for another post.)

The bifurcated service at Le Cirque—one level for celebrities, another for the rest of us—is the stuff of legend. Upon her arrival in New York, Times critic Ruth Reichl was famously treated like dirt. Everything changed once Maccioni figured out who she was: “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.” Reichl demoted the restaurant to three stars. In the 2006 update, Frank Bruni encountered much the same attitude that Reichl did. So did the Amateur Gourmet, who wrote about his experience in a post called “Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque.”

Perhaps Maccioni has finally learned his lesson. When I visited with a friend for a year-end dinner, we saw no evidence of second-class service. Our table was ready immediately, and we weren’t seated in Siberia. Service was friendly and polished, but the large, busy space is not geared to long, quiet meals. I didn’t note the exact timing, but I felt that the multi-course tasting menu went by a tad quickly.

The clientele was a broad mix of young and old. We didn’t notice any celebrities, but a couple of middle-aged men were with lavishly dressed women who appeared to be a good deal younger than they. You can fill in the possibilities for yourself.

For a variety of reasons, it took me a month to get around to writing this blog post, and I’m afraid my recollections have dimmed somewhat. We ordered the tasting menu, which in general was impressive, with only a couple of dull spots (which most tasting menus have). The food is shown below in photo-essay format.

lecirque01a.jpg lecirque01b.jpg

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Le Cirque (151 E. 58th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: **½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***