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Le Cirque and Lucia

  • January 28, 2009

It was supposed to be a memorable meal and evening at the opera. And it was, but not for the reasons we’d expected. We had dinner reservations at Le Cirque and tickets for “Lucia di Lammermoor” at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera with the much-heralded Russian soprano Anna Netrebko singing the lead. We’d heard her sing last year in an ethereal “Romeo and Juliet” and couldn’t wait to hear her in the Donizetti role. But more about the opera later.

First stop was at Le Cirque, which is taking part in New York City’s Restaurant Week, a two-week promotion where dinner with three courses is offered for $35. Sirio Maccioni’s temple to food is legendary, most recently through HBO’s documentary, “Le Cirque: A Table In Heaven.” The food was delicious, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t exactly transport us to the culinary firmament.

Most of the diners at our table ordered the chestnut pappardelle with veal ragout as the first course. Good pick, but since everyone else was ordering it, I chose the “Le Cirque” salad instead. Dumb me – should have stuck with the pappardelle, which was probably the best dish of the evening.

My main course was cod topped with a shallot crust and served with a raisin sauce. About seven small cubes of roasted beets looked stranded on the other side of the plate. It tasted wonderful, but if you eat with the eyes as well as the mouth, I think my eyes were straying elsewhere. The fish and beets felt lonely on such a large space and were looking for company. Rice maybe? potatoes? Take a look and judge for yourself.

The diver scallops and chicken breast that other diners at our table ordered were both beautifully presented and well-cooked, but nobody was exactly swooning over them either. Good, but not great.

For dessert, nearly everybody at the table zeroed in on the chocolate fondant, which turned out to be a very small portion of chocolate lava cake, along with a quenelle of ice cream on the side. Trying to limit my fat intake, (in a nod to my expanding waistline) I felt righteous in ordering the citrus parfait. Wish I’d joined the crowd in picking chocolate instead.

Maybe we’re just too picky, or maybe we’re jaded diners who know how to cook well at home. We all agreed that we’d had a good dinner considering the $35 restaurant week price, but nothing so transcendent as to validate the prices normally charged by this upper east side restaurant ($98 prix fixe, or $120 tasting menu).

Next we were off to the opera to hear the lovely Netrebko, partnered with tenor Rolando Villazon, a duo that has sung together to rave reviews in the past.

Netrebko was returning to the stage after giving birth six months ago, and looked as beautiful as ever. Her voice didn’t seem to have suffered much from the hiatus either, even if she doesn’t have the vocal power as many Lucias from the past and even if she missed the high note in the famous “mad scene.” Villazon’s voice cracked once in the first act, but it was barely noticeable. By the end of the second act, uh oh, it happened again and this time you couldn’t help noticing. He had to stop dead in his singing and compose himself before continuing. Poor guy. Something was amiss.

Before the third act began, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb appeared onstage and everyone expected him to announce that Villazon would not complete the opera. But no, he asked for patience in explaining that the tenor was not feeling well, but didn’t want to disappoint his fans and would finish the opera.

We held our breath, since the third act is really the tenor’s showpiece. Surprisingly, Villazon rallied. Maybe it wasn’t the tour de force that you might want to hear from this Mexican singer, but it was respectable, especially considering he was ill. As for Netrebko — a Joan Sutherland-style Lucia she wasn’t. But she still carried the evening and we were happy to have been there.

I’ll leave you with a really dreamy clip of Netrebko singing an aria from the opera “Rusalka.” See if you don’t fall in love with her too.

Thank you to Maryann of “Finding La Dolce Vita” for explaining to me how to add a video clip from Youtube.

I “Heart” NYC Restaurant Week

  • January 23, 2009

I can’t get that pumpkin mousse with butterscotch sauce out of my brain — oh please, somebody give me the recipe.

It’s the dessert I ate last night at what was the sweet ending to a fantastic meal in New York City – and it was on sale to boot.

Well, not exactly on sale, but during restaurant week, which takes place twice a year in New York City, scores of restaurants offer a three-course lunch for $24 and a three-course dinner for $35. That can be a real bargain at places where just the entree can cost that much.

Restaurant week is also my excuse for arranging to meet a friend for dinner, as I did last night, at F.Illi Ponte, an Italian restaurant in Tribeca, bordering on Soho.

Neither the company, nor the food disappointed. The Italian restaurant, whose abbreviated name “F.Illi” stands for “fratelli,” or “brother” has been around for a long time, and I’ve passed it many times, but I never managed to eat there. It’s a little bit out of the way in a kind of desolate neighborhood by the waterfront, but the schlep was well worth it.

Right away, good vibes came our way along with the freebie munchies at our table, which by the way, overlooked the Hudson River. This wasn’t just a plate of olive oil and a bread basket. Noooo – it was a small plate with chunks of parmigiano cheese and another plate heaped with the best caponata I’ve ever eaten – sweet and savory at the same time and oh so delicious.

My friend Lynn, and I ordered the same first course – funghi ripiene – (actually make that a fungo not funghi – the singular for mushroom – since there was only one. But hey, you’re allowed a grammar error on the menu when the food is so good.) The roasted portobello mushroom was stuffed with crabmeat and breadcrumbs and served over whipped polenta and a shellfish sauce. A well-executed combination of flavors, textures and colors.

Lynn ordered strozzapreti in a duck ragout as her main course, topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta. I chose veal scalloppine in a traditional lemon, capers and parsley sauce, accompanied by mashed potatoes and stewed escarole. We were on a roll, with both dishes cooked to perfection.

The piece de resistance however, was the dessert – a “Sapori D’Autunno,” or “flavors of Fall.” If this is Fall, I want to stay there forever. Imagine a velvety pumpkin mousse resting on a slice of spiced pumpkin cake, surrounded by dribbles of butterscotch sauce, poached figs and other dried fruits. Oh, I forgot the chocolate sauce over the mousse. OK, wipe that drool off your chin.

Somebody in that kitchen really knows how to cook. And in the off-chance the chef is reading this, would you mind emailing me the recipe? Please? And maybe the caponata too? Pretty please?

Stay tuned next week for part two of Restaurant Week, when “Le Cirque” is on tap.