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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.