Luis Melendez, "Still Life with Figs" (c. 1760)
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DINING OUT IN ASPEN by John
CORNER: Le Cirque by
THE WINE CELLAR: Is This Italy's Greatest Dessert Wine?
Going But Good Eats in Aspen
in over Aspen’s Sardy
Field Airport, I seemed to notice a lot less private jets on the
tarmac. The streets of the town looked positively ghostly, with sale
signs in every retailer’s window, and the slopes were not what I’d
call overrun with skiers.
One of the most popular
restaurants for dinner in Aspen is the two-year-old Lulu Wilson, named
after a woman who long ago made this rustic Victorian house her home.
The building is
now owned by local restaurateurs Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce, who
also own Wild Fig in
town and have just opened Brexi,
a French brasserie in
the new Dancing Bear condo development. The couple
is frequently at Lulu Wilson because they seem to know every one of
their guests well. But Sergio Acampora is the real firefly here, as
warm and ebulliently gracious as he is keyed into what his clientele
NEW YORK CORNER
One Beacon Court
151 East 58th Street (near Third Avenue)
For thirty-five years now Le Cirque has seen the American landscape shake, shimmy, rock, roll, slide, soar, and come back to the need for a sense of refinement the restaurant has always represented under the Maccioni family, which includes paterfamilias Sirio, his wife Egi, and their three sons, Mario, Marco, and Mauro, whom I have literally watched grow up and become various reflections of their parents while having each his own style and degree of savoir-faire.
A remarkable film documentary, "Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven," about the family appeared last month on TV that showed them to share all the idiosyncrasies of any family, Italian style, of course, along with a deep and abiding respect and love for what they do and for each other.
The documentary was shot at a queasy time for Le Cirque, as it waited to find out if the restaurant would get at least three stars from the New York Times after the appointment of a new chef, Christophe Bellanca, came aboard in January of 2007. Those three stars were awarded, the family exultant, then they went back to work, which, within 18 months required hiring yet another new chef in the tradition of several superlative ones over the decades, including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, and Sottha Kuhn among others. Each time Le Cirque was re-judged, not just by the Times and other media critics but by the old regulars and the newcomers, which now include bloggers by the score, most of whom wouldn't know a bread roll from a Tootsie Roll.
Mario, Sirio, Mauro, and Marco Maccioni, circa 1986
While there was every reason to believe that Le Cirque's brightest days are behind it, as indicated by the closing of similar haute cuisine French restaurants like Lutèce, La Côte Basque, and La Caravelle along with a slew of much newer restaurants in the high-priced field, the fact is that Le Cirque has never lagged behind any other restaurant in terms of style and cuisine. If it clung to certain ideas of classicism, there were always new ideas other restaurateurs would envy to have thought of. Indeed, the radical make-overs of Le Cirque from an old-fashioned, ornate dining salon on East 65th Street into a more democratically laid-out configuration in the landmark Villard Houses in the Palace Hotel, and, for the last four years, into a very modern, curving Adam Tihany-designed dining room in the Bloomberg Building on East 58th Street, have shown the Maccionis always thinking ahead, not behind, and now, the hiring of an Australian-born chef, Craig Hopson (below), proves that the master in the kitchen does not have to speak French or knuckle under to outmoded ideas. The choice of Hopson was, I think, a triumph of good taste, and the cooking at Le Cirque is as good as its best over 25 years.
Hopson's résumé is thick with illustrious names--stints at the Hôtel d'Angleterre in Geneva, Troigros in Roanne, Guy Savoy and Lucas Carton in Paris, Circa in Brisbane, and, most recently, as chef de cuisine at Picholine and executive chef at One If by Land, Two If by Sea in NYC, where I first applauded his work. But since that last location had its own French-American style firmly in place (it opened four year before Le Cirque), Hopson had to toe a certain line; I'm sure he has to at Le Cirque, too, for the Maccionis are always hovering over their chefs, insisting they may express themselves any way they wish as long as it is still in the Le Cirque style.
Thus, on my latest dinner at Le Cirque, when the place was buzzing with a crowd that now seems equally split between old faithful and newcomers, my wife and I began with a classic terrine of foie gras, rabbit, and bacon--as flavorful as any in NYC. But the addition of a Granny Smith apple gelée and tempura-fried squash showed how Hopson can diverge to show off his own individuality. As the evening wore on--and we'd put ourselves in his hands to do a tasting menu--his special talents emerged in dish after dish, with none exhibiting the kind of daredevil attitude some of his young colleagues might try to slip by.
So, red snapper came with a roasted grape salad and celery-scented yogurt. Sautéed Gulf Shrimp had a tangy-sweet component of kaffir lime, hearts of palm, and carrot confit--the elements in these dishes tasting like a breeze from the Middle and Far East.
Brandade of cod reverted to classic, hearty French form, with generous black truffles and a soft-cooked egg to moisten it. The meat courses included some very finely grained venison with a delightful chestnut-caraway cake, pear, and Stilton cheese; a saddle of Lamb with North African flavors of eggplant pastille, goat's cheese, red pepper purée; and a wagyu ribeye steak with Treviso radicchio playing a bitter contrast to a dried cherry tapenade and a crispy beignet filled with lush bone marrow.
Desserts were not fanciful in the way they were years ago when the restaurant's circus theme was more manifest. But they could hardly have been more delectable, including a beauty of a deep-chocolate soufflé, an apple confit and sorbet with calvados-soaked baba cake, and poached pineapple in Sauternes with coconut and passion fruit, barely scented with coriander. A small surprise came in the form of quince sorbet with shaved Mimolette cheese--such a lovely ending to a grand but not overly rich meal.
Le Cirque sold off some of its vast cache of wine recently, but with hundreds of selections in every global category, it is still one of NYC's finest lists, not least for pricing at least 20 percent of them under $50, some as low as $28, which is very much part of the Maccionis' plan to make Le Cirque far more approachable than people think it might be. Beyond the bar is a cafe and enoteca for lighter meals and wine tastings, and their $28 lunch is one of the best bargains in town.
You can also always be sure there will be a Maccioni greeting you, and maître d' Mario is one of the great gentleman of the restaurant business, blending genuine respect with his own Italian gentility.
If you have never been to Le Cirque or not in quite a while, you will find all of its best virtues still gloriously intact while Hopson's wonderful cuisine adds measurably to the idea that this may well be a timeless place that only exists in New York.
Dinner at Le Cirque is fixed priced at $98 for three courses, or $120 for a four-course tasting menu (with wines $170). A two-course fixed price lunch costs $45, while in the Cafe, dinner is $48, also available à la carte ; at lunch the Cafe menu is $28. The restaurant is open for lunch Mon.-Fri, and for dinner Mon.-Sat.
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
IS THIS ITALY'S
GREATEST DESSERT WINE?
by John Mariani
Italy was once
its dessert wines, not least Marsala, though their style and reputation
has faded over the past century
so that even Marsala is not much appreciated nowadays, not even in
Sicily. Small production sweet wines like Picolit from
Friuli have garnered praise, as has Recioto di Soave from Veneto, while
the modernization of the
southern wineries has turned attention to wines like Malvasia di Lipari.
Photo: Wine Bottle by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery; Carole Bouquet at Pantelleria by André Rau.
HOWEVER, STAND BY THE WORDS "THE" AND "AND" IN THE ARTICLE
TRASH WEDDINGS, NO. 108
* On March 3 in Chicago, a special benefit
evening for Henry Alfred Bishop III, founding sommelier of Spiaggia now
battling cancer, will be held at Spiaggia’s
Private Dining Rooms, hosted by Spiaggia's Executive
Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano with Rick Bayless Chef/Owner Frontera Grill
& Topolobampo, Erwin Drechsler Chef/Owner erwin
café, Paul Kahan Chef/Owner Blackbird Avec &
Publican and Priscilla Satkoff Chef/Owner Salpicon, and
winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards. Ben Ferdinand of the
Hart Davis Hart will wield the gavel at a Live Auction of Fine &
Rare Wines. Suggested Donation Per Person: $100. All proceeds
will go to The Henry Bishop Trust to help defray Henry's medical
expenses. Visit www.henrybishop.net or by phone at 708-386-5994.
* In NYC
Chef Sandro Fioriti of Sandro’s
has started the Dow Jones Pasta Index Special: Mon.-Fri. from
4:30pm to 6:30pm, Sandro’s pastas are priced at the first 3 digits of
the day’s closing of the Dow Jones Index’s while the Dow is below
10,000. So if the Dow closes today between 7,500-7,600 the price of any
pasta will be between $7.50-$7.60, or about a third of the regular
prices of $19-21. Call 212-288-7374.
* In Chicago, N9NE Steakhouse launches weekly Monday night W9NE AND D9NE AT N9NE, 9 white and 9 red wines at half-price, to complement the cuisine of Executive Chef Michael Shrader. Call 312-575-9900 . Visit www.n9ne.com.
* On March 10 a "Napa Valley Wine Dinner" will be held at Tribeca Grill, NYC featuring Miner Family, Honig, Larkin and Xtant. Barrel samples of the great 2007 vintage will be served during the reception and Cabernets from 2004-2006 will be featured during the dinner. $125 pp. Call 212-941-3900 for reservations.
* From March 9-12, more than 100 Napa Valley vintners
will visit NYC to
showcase “Taste Napa Valley:
New York" sponsored by the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV). The
events wine-and-cheese classes at Artisanal Premium Cheese; a Master
Wine class hosted by Kevin Zraly and Sherry-Lehmann at Maloney &
Porcelli; a festive fundraiser for the Elevator Repair Service Theater
Ensemble at Lucky Strike Lanes bowling alley; among other. To see
details about all of the events, visit www.napavintners.com.
* The Study at Yale
in New Haven, CT, is the
what is planned to be a chain of "collegiate chic" hotels on the Ivy
League's towns and campuses across the East Coast. The Yale restaurant Heirloom will be
involved in "Flavors of Connecticut," a benefit
for the American Liver Foundation showcasing Connecticut's premier
chefs, taking place March 31, 2009. Heirloom will also take part in
Market New Haven's "See, Sip, and Savor" promotion for theater
goers catching a show, "See, Sip, and Savor" that offers a
menu. Call 203-503-3900; visit www.studyhotels.com.
* Executive Chef Keith Luce at The Herbfarm in Woodinville, WA, unveils a new set of late winter and spring dining themes incl. A Taste of Trees (Feb.19 - March 19); Kobe Beef – Super Cattle in Seattle (March 20 - April 11); Chambers of the Sea, Spring Forager’s Dinner and A Menu for a Copper King await. Visit www.theherbfarm.com.
* In Dorchester,
MA, Tavolo holds
Regional Pasta Tour on Wed. nights, for $18. Half flights and full
flights of wine can be matched to the Regional Pasta Call.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEW FEATURE: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linking up with four excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below: THIS WEEK:
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). THIS WEEK: Stratton Partners With Drysdale Tennis
Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!",
is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with
children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle
McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family
travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide
its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and
practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy,
safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children
who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of
adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.