My passion is discovering the hidden gems on the side streets of Manhattan, but every so often I am treated to a different kind of encounter. It is my sincere wish that by sharing my incredible experience at one of the most iconic restaurants in the world, I am, at the same time, drawing people's attention to the rest of the amazing 58th Street businesses.
Having already met a few of the players in the Le Cirque dynasty on 55th Street, when I spent time at Circo, I thought that I was somewhat prepared for what was awaiting me at Sirio Maccioni's signature restaurant. But I do not believe that anyone could imagine the exhilaration of getting to go behind-the-scenes, and observing the staff knock out elegant dish after dish. Perhaps it might best be compared to being on the set of one's favorite movie as it is in production. I will always remember and be grateful for the warm reception that Carlo Mantica, co-CEO of Le Cirque International gave to me. Quiet and charming, he is the person responsible for introducing me to each of the three restaurants that the Maccioni brothers run. I had the pleasure of meeting Mauro at Circo, Marco at Le Cirque and Mario, who is responsible for Sirio Ristorante in the Pierre Hotel at 61st Street. The ultimate was getting to say hello to their father, the legendary Sirio Maccioni, on the evening of Le Cirque's fortieth anniversary while Andrea Bocelli performed. On a cold and dreary day outdoors, my mood was anything but as I elatedly walked from floor to floor exploring the various kitchens with Mr. Mantica. He explained that everything at Le Cirque is made in-house, as we began our tour downstairs in the prep kitchen. Here, I noticed boxes of hay that Carlo said are used in one of their signature dishes - a shank of pig roast that is cooked in a cocotte and immersed in Armagnac-infused hay. When served, as I was fortunate enough to observe, the entire creation is unveiled at the table, with smoke pillowing from the dish. Moving on to the pastry preparation area, and then the chocolate nook, I caught a glimpse of the amazing display of custom-made chocolates, including intricately decorated high heels from New York Fashion Week, and soccer balls from the World Cup, as well as a continuously flowing chocolate fountain. The smell alone was divine. About a third of the dishes on Le Cirque's menu have been offered since the 1970s, but the rest change frequently. At one point, Carlo introduced me to Maria von NicolaiI, the woman who helps keep the show running on a daily basis. Maria explained that "It has always been Sirio's philosophy to give guests what they want," and followed up with an anecdote that perfectly illustrated Sirio's generous nature and the dedication that he has had towards his customers: Le Cirque had received a call from a Texan who was planning a visit to New York and hoped to dine at the restaurant, having had the pleasure years earlier. He asked specifically for the Foie Gras Ravioli, an item that he had enjoyed during his last visit. The only problem was that the dish was no longer on the menu. Normally, one would imagine such a request dismissed, but Sirio instead decided to bring back the coveted plate, making it the special at the restaurant on the evening of the Texan's visit. While going out of his way to please the people who come to dine has been a significant part of Sirio's success, he has also been responsible for educating a number of the world's other chefs, including Daniel Boulud, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, and Geoffrey Zakarian - whom I had the sincere pleasure of meeting when he came to honor Sirio at the fortieth anniversary celebration. Each of these people has gone on to have immensely successful careers, themselves. "So many chefs got their start here," said Carlo, but he quickly added, "all of them have stayed loyal to Sirio throughout their careers." In addition to the main dining room (sports jackets for men still required), Le Cirque is home to Cafe Cirque. The flow between these two restaurants works seamlessly. The bar area acts as a transition space. Here, I found people relaxing while sipping their drinks and munching on sliders. Just to the right, there is the less formal bistro designed for those either living or working in the area. This is also where the imposing wine tower is - the impressive structure rising to the ceiling in the middle of the room holds approximately 300 bottles of Sirio's fine wine collection. The Cafe offers what is known as Musical Mondays, where live jazz can be enjoyed featuring some of the best talents, including Sabrina Wender, wife of Marco Maccioni. On an evening that the Manhattan Sideways team was filming, she performed a few sets of smooth jazz standards, bossa nova numbers, and sweetly sung songs in her native Italian. Le Cirque is "building on a legacy and growing faster than ever," Carlos proudly stated. With restaurants in Las Vegas, India, the Dominican Republic, the Middle East, and more opening soon, he went on to say, "In the U.S., the first wave of fine dining started forty years ago, but in other places it is just taking hold." Le Cirque has certainly become a fine dining destination but as Carlo remarked, it is "not just about the food." It is also the atmosphere and the people who come to dine. To emphasize the point, Carlo noted that they recently started offering catering because "we like to follow our guests, wherever they may want to go," bringing a little bit of Le Cirque to special occasions across the city. As of early 2016, Massimo Bebbo, formerly the chef at sister restaurant Sirio in the Pierre Hotel, will bring his own style to preparing the classic, elegant French dishes that have defined Le Cirque for decades.
Beautifully decorated for the holiday season, Bistro Vendome was still abuzz with chatter when the Manhattan Sideways team stopped by at the tail end of lunch hour to meet with the delightful owner, Virginie Petiteau. Although she and her husband Pascal, who is the executive chef, hail from Brittany, France, they met in New York, where they both worked at Jubilee, a French restaurant on First Avenue. After fifteen years there, Virginie said they felt ready to open their own place. She told us that it was great to already have a base of customers in the area that knew and supported them when they opened Bistro Vendome in 2010. And she was pleased to tell us that they have maintained a loyal clientele ever since. As Virginie put it: "Some people who come here saw me when I was pregnant, and now my daughter is fourteen. "Pascal started working at high-end French restaurants in France at an early age. After coming to New York, he decided to focus on more casual French food. In 2014, he was inducted as Master Chef in Mątres Cuisiniers de France, a prestigious organization aiming "to preserve and spread the French culinary arts, encourage training in cuisine, and assist professional development. " An unusual occurrence continued to happen as we resumed our walking on 58th, as so many other businesses told us that they eat at Bistro Vendome on a regular basis because the food was as traditionally French as one could hope for in Manhattan.
Trendy, immense, packed at any hour and serving intriguing Pan-Asian food, Tao has been a sensation on 58th since opening its doors in 2000. Stepping inside, one cannot help but immediately feel transported to a different world. The interior design is exceptionally meticulous with beautiful calligraphy scrolls adorning the high ceilings, and a sixteen foot massive Buddha sculpture taking center stage down below. Despite the frenetic atmosphere, I have found Tao to be a fun restaurant to dine with friends and to enjoy an excellent meal.