Ding-a-ling circus Jul 18 2006
One of the first reviews Ruth Reichl wrote as the New York Times food critic was of Le Cirque, a fancy French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. In the now-famous piece, immortalied in her memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl compares the service she receives at the restaurant as a welcomed reviewer with that as an average Jane. From the review:
Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one. An avalanche of sweets descended upon the table, and I was fascinated to note that the raspberries on the new desserts were three times the size of those on the old ones.
Thirteen years later, current food critic Frank Bruni reviews the newest incarnation of Le Cirque in today's Times and echoing Reichl's technique, finds that little has changed:
I also experienced Le Cirque's famously split personality, half dismissive and half pampering, depending on who you are. On my first visit, when a companion and I arrived before the two other members of our party, a host let us know we should wait in the bar area not by asking or telling us to go there but by gesturing silently in that direction with his head. Most of the seats were occupied, so we stood. Over the next 10 minutes, no one asked us if we wanted a drink or anything else.
After we were taken to our table, servers seemed to figure out who I was and offered to move us to prime real estate with better sightlines. (We declined.)
So on a subsequent visit I sent three friends in ahead of me. One sat at the bar for 15 minutes without getting a server's attention, and a bartender quarreled with the two others when they asked that the charges for their Champagne be transferred to the table. At a place as self-consciously posh as Le Cirque, such a request should be granted instantly.
But I was treated like royalty when I showed up, and on another night, when I dined with a filmmaker whom the staff also knew, soft-shell crabs, which weren't on the menu, appeared almost as soon as she mentioned an appetite for them. They were fantastic: crunchy, meaty, sweet.
I can't imagine wanting to go someplace like that when there's so many other places with food as good or better and where the service is friendly, helpful, and accommodating for everybody. I guess that's the side of New York I don't like.