Restaurant Reviews

a parade of monkeys.

Le Cirque: Episode Deux.

So, we figured that the wait staff would be entirely too eager to please us and that our meals would be extraordinary as we were no longer incognito.

Too bad we were wrong.

Not that the wait staff was unpleasant. On the contrary, they were quite amicable. The host greeted us knowingly, the reservationist came to our table to welcome us, our main waiter was attentive, but not overbearing. Still, it took too long for someone to bring our menus.

Because we’re not advantage takers, we felt compelled to stick to the Restaurant Week menu. Luckily there were a few options that we hadn’t tried & since one of our previous party couldn’t join, our newest companion was happy to order the dreaded skate. Even the presentation of it was more elegant than the last time–a definite improvement.

However, I didn’t bother to taste it, because I didn’t care. And here’s why: for my second meal at one of New York’s foremost French establishments, I opted for the Saffron Linguine starter. The accompanying sardines, seared and set atop a zucchini/caper relish were delightful–umami and tangy, salty and light, dare I say there were perfect. Unfortunately the dish is called Saffron Linguine & the linguine was possibly the worst pasta I have ever had. Ever. No vibrancy of color one might expect from a saffron dish served at a place with a chi chi circus theme and what’s more, the pasta tasted like nothing more than dirty water and clumped together as if it’d been sitting around since the last time we were there, waiting for some poor soul to order it. Absolutely disgusting. I would have sent it back, but I was already eating for free and I didn’t want to jeopardize the sanitation of my forthcoming courses.

My main: Chicken Ballantine with corn, arugula and maitake salad. The corn was super sweet, too sweet really. I’ll assume it was because of the dressing in which it had been tossed, though I can’t be sure–it is the height of corn season, so maybe Chef just got the bestest of the freshest that day. The chicken was weird. For the most part it was dry, yet occasionally, I bit into a moist, flavorful, delectable bite. How one cooks a roulade unevenly is beyond me. I’m pretty sure the lamest of home-cooks couldn’t manage it.

For dessert: Rocky Road. A caramel panna cotta, topped with chocolate cookie crumbles, chocolate sorbet and toasted marshmallows. Decadent & honestly, pretty good.

The wine was delicious, but I didn’t bother to write it down, something comparable to what we’d had before. All in all, my ultimate review of Le Cirque can be summed up in a single aphorism: meh.

It really was one of the most disappointing dining experiences I’ve ever known. For a place to invite our party back to show they could do better–I simply expected better.

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top that.

So I had a free meal at Le Cirque.

But I guess I should back up. First, I paid for a meal at Le Cirque. A writer friend of mine decided to organize an outing to one of New York’s fanciest eateries during the extension of Summer Restaurant Week. After several flake outs and suddenly can’t go’s, we became a group of four. The idea was to enjoy our meal (or not enjoy our meal) then to each blog about our collective experience.

I arrived early, so decided to wait at the bar. Underwhelmed by the cocktail menu, I opted for the least expensive whiskey on the menu, at $14, a Crown on the rocks. Which, after tax and tip cost $20. Lame.

Upon the arrival of the rest of my group, we were told that–although we’d made reservations several weeks ahead–there would be a wait for the dining room; however we were welcome to sit in the cafe (i.e. the less formal room) if we’d like to be seated right away. Lame, but we did it anyway.

In retrospect we should have waited. Not just for the experience of dining in the main room, but because it took at least 20 minutes for the waiter to bring our menus and offer drinks. The surprisingly poor service would continue for the evening; by night’s end we’d been “enjoying our dinner” for upwards of 3 hours.

As for the food: total time warp. The consensus was that we’d just had a meal in 1972. I will be generous and say that my starter, White Gazpacho with Rock Shrimp, was delicious. Sweet cucumber, cut by vinegar and bolstered with a creamy, nutty essence. Peppered with finely diced cucumbers and paprika shrimp, the occasional crunch or tender chew was as welcome as the surprise kick of heat on the back of the tounge.

I took the Skate a la Grenobloise for my main course. I’d say the cauliflower puree was nice, but the effort to say such would lend too much praise to such an awful dish. An uber traditional French preparation, the butter wasn’t properly toasted. As a result the entire dish felt oily and lackluster. And though I’m not a capers biggest fan, the dish desperately needed more of that brininess to cut the grease.

The dessert was great–Ricotta Mousse Cake on a graham base with Blueberry Compote and Fresh Watermelon. The cake was a cloud of delicious nothingness and the blueberries provided a great tang, but here’s the thing: at one of the foremost French restaurants in the country, dessert should not be great, it should be transcendent. I mean, give the watermelon a sweet pickle or sous vide treatment. Please, do something impressive. Also, bring my coffee with my dessert and not five minutes after I’ve finished it, thanks.

On another note, I know restaurants mark up wine prices. We had a delicious white bordeaux: Domaine De Gerard Millet 2010, a Sancerre. It was effervescent & slightly crisp but had a buttery, complex body; perfect for our wide array of dishes. It was $60–not bad. Until a Google search revealed that this very bottle retails for around $16. Ridiculous.

My companions all had similar reactions to their respective meals. One of them, trained through FCI, had prepared that skate dish more times than she could recount throughout her training. Expecting Le Cirque’s version to be the epitome of what that dish should be, she especially found it surprisingly and utterly terrible. So much so that when the restaurant FINALLY brought us our bill she took the opportunity to fill out the oh-so-80s comment card they’d brought along with it.

Upon our exit, the maitre d’ sarcastically quipped, “Would you care for anything else, perhaps a cigarette?” Suggesting we’d been the ones lounging about and demanding sub-par service.

Never expecting to step into Le Cirque again, and fully content in that decision, our rag-tag group was all the more surprised when a rep from the restaurant contacted our organizer the next day both by phone and by email and, based on her comment card musings, offered us all a free meal.

Because one doesn’t turn down a free meal at one of New York’s foremost restaurants, we returned the following week. That however, is another story for another day (most likely tomorrow…)

Until then dear reader, fair well and tread lightly. Or, check out the reviews from my fellow bloggers:

http://www.diningwithoutlaws.com/
http://www.carnivoreandvegetarian.com/

worth a reprint

Journalism is a dying medium. This we know, and yet people continue to write. We write because we want people to know about the great thing that we’ve discovered and we want them to know that we discovered it first–or we want them to validate that what we love (or loathe) is worth loving in the first place.

So it is with food journalism. When it comes to restaurant reviews, unless it’s in my neighborhood or it’s a chef of whom I’m already aware or it’s a place I’ve already been, the chance that I’ll read them is exceptionally rare–and I love food. That said, I’ve just wrapped a course in food journalism at the French Culinary Institute and as an assignment wrote a review of the school’s restaurant. I don’t plan on writing a lot of restaurant reviews here (though I’m sure the occasional one will materialize); but I thought this piece deserved a life after my teacher’s evaluation of it. And thus:

Road to Perfection
by Joe Sevier

I’d hoped to fully enjoy the evening: a night of dining with new acquaintances. By ten o’clock the company had proved divine, owing to the moment mid-first course when we all acknowledged what we really wanted: to dive into each others’ plates as much as our own. The food; however, was another matter.

A perfect bite of Salmon Tartar started the evening, after the disappointingly cold hunks of baguette. Resting on a thin slice of Kirby and topped with chive crème fresh and salmon roe, it was an amuse bouche both perfectly fresh and perfectly briny—a hopeful omen of the meal to come.

Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Lobster Salad followed with gusto. Tasting strangely, deliciously full of cauliflower, the creamy puree held an earthy backbone to the rich, lightly handled lobster. Another hit! Alas, then began the downfall.

When accompanied by the label “crusted,” I generally expect crustiness. What I got from the Horseradish-Dill Crusted Trout was a delicious piece of fish tasting fully of dill with the tickle of horseradish dancing on the sides of my tongue—though nary a thing I would liken to crust. There was a piece of soggy skin on the underside—better had it been removed. The accompanying Bok Choy was fine and the Mussels could’ve provided a nice relief, had they not been slightly rubbery, from the brightly flavored fish and sweet, lemony broth beneath.

Next, Rack of Lamb, which my server attested would be prepared medium-rare, unless I preferred otherwise—I did not. The chef, on the other hand, must’ve as the meat was under-seared yet overdone. Mostly tough, I cut away a large portion and took a pink bite near the end of the bone—gamey and crusty and tender and flavorful, the lamb had arrived, if only for a bite. Alongside: muddy, mushy, over-cooked artichokes and enoki mushrooms, pickled with fennel and a full brace of vinegar, which brought the dish some life but couldn’t save it in the end.

A gift from the chef served to perfectly cleanse the palate: Goat Cheese Sorbet. Creamy and lemony, sweet with a hint of mustiness from the goat, it was topped with a parmesan shortbread—a nice salty bite against the sorbet. Unfortunately two slices of red wine poached pear were slapped alongside. The anise flavor overwhelmed, the pear didn’t please and too bad for me, I’d already finished my sorbet.

I finished the evening with an Orange and Lemon Tart with Raspberry Coulis. A full citrus aroma filled my palate while the shard of sugar glass & rich, light texture gave me visions of chiffon pie and crème brûlée all at once. A salad of berries flecked with macadamias rounded out the dessert and served as the perfect ending to an acceptable meal.

Perfection is hard to come by. A few missteps along the way reiterated that mere students (albeit of FCI) were running the kitchen. Yet, as indicated by the bright spots in my meal, the chefs at L’Ecole are at least walking in the right direction.

L’Ecole, 462 Broadway, (212) 219-3300, www.frenchculinary.com

 

A breakdown of the star rating system
Restaurants are rated on a star system spanning no stars, meaning not recommended, to five stars, meaning transcendent. To wit:

no stars…..Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
…..Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.
…..What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
…..I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
…..Resistance is Futile.
…..Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.