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6 months after reopening, famed Le Cirque at Bellagio hits its stride

Updated May 21, 2022 - 8:06 am

In 1998, as a new food and drink culture began taking hold in Las Vegas, one that would eventually make the city a global dining destination, an outpost of Le Cirque debuted in Bellagio.

The original Le Cirque, opened by the Maccioni family on East 65th Street in Manhattan in 1974, had long been one of the country’s most famous restaurants, a celebration of high-end French cooking, beloved by royalty (regnant and deposed), celebrities, poobahs of commerce, social cyclones and assorted shiny folk.

Sirio Maccioni presided over the restaurant’s social swirl (“cirque” means “circus” in French), seating diners in Nirvana (to the right of the entrance) or Siberia (the other side of the dining room), according to status or whim. Just being rich wasn’t enough; rich people were as thick as pâté at Le Cirque.

In 1997, the restaurant moved from its cozy East 65th Street digs, with panels of monkeys cavorting (à la Fragonard) in 18th century French dress, to a large space in a Midtown Manhattan hotel. And this is where the local story of Le Cirque begins.

For Vegas, the restaurant returned to an intimate scale (about 40 seats), with a tented ceiling in bright stripes (inspired by the circus version), striped chairs and booths beneath, windows framing views of the Bellagio fountains and panels of monkeys at the circus painted by the artist who created the original murals on East 65th.

Even as the mothership in New York moved locations again, facing changing tastes and family squabbles, an unthinkable one-star review from The New York Times and eventual closure in 2018, Le Cirque in Las Vegas flourished.

And then came the pandemic. Le Cirque here shut its doors in March 2020 and didn’t reopen them until last fall, about six months ago. The restaurant emerged from the pandemic with a talented new executive chef offering a fresh vision of what it means to prepare classically inspired French food on the Strip in the 21st century.

A restaurant with a past

Being an institution has its challenges.

No other Strip restaurant, past or present, possesses the social provenance of Le Cirque. When you walk into Le Cirque, social history walks with you. And for every new customer drawn by the restaurant’s reputation for superlative food and service, there is another customer whose relationship with Le Cirque dates to its New York days, even all the way back to East 65th (and chef Daniel Boulud).

“If you want to change it totally, that won’t be Le Cirque anymore,” said senior General Manager Gabriel Fontenier, when asked if significant changes had been made to the look of the restaurant during pandemic downtime. (Answer: very little; just some lighting, drapery and plateware.)

“It’s not easy to reopen a restaurant with a past like Le Cirque. Everybody knows it. You have to follow the tradition of Le Cirque. This is very different because the Strip is all about change.”

From Maine to California

The restaurant currently offers two eight-course tasting menus (one regular, one vegetarian), plus optional wine pairings and a cheese supplement.

At a recent sampling of five dishes from the regular tasting menu, Maine lobster salad arrives first, its delicately sweet claw meat graced with citronette dressing and set with spring asparagus, petite snow peas and a bouquet of colorful zucchini blossoms.

Dameon Evers, the new executive chef, whose curriculum vitae includes stints with Gordon Ramsay, Michael Mina and Thomas Keller, braises California rabbit leg in riesling and jus, then serves it with a sauce of riesling, crème fraîche and whole-grain mustard, the tartness of the sauce drawing out the sweetness of the rabbit. On the side: a small pan of crisp spaetzle for textural play.

Remaking a signature dish

The sea bass, perhaps Le Cirque’s most famous dish, touches down. But what is this? Where is the fish wrapped in parchment-thin strips of potato, then roasted, then bedded in leeks, potato purée and Barolo? Le Cirque has always served sea bass this way, in New York, and in Vegas before the pandemic.

“We brought the sea bass back but with a twist,” said Evers, who has led the kitchen at Le Cirque since May 2021, mid-pandemic.

The fish, seared in clarified butter, is joined by leek fondue and a Yukon gold tuile. A topknot of coriander blossoms crowns the sea bass. A sauce made from the fish carcass, red wine and aromatics puddles the plate.

“Every piece of DNA is there, but we present it in a fresher take,” said Nathan Frost, executive chef of Bellagio.

A gust of basil mousse tops Colorado lamb saddle speckled with dehydrated Niçoise olives and strewn with mint and spring peas. Yogurt emulsion rides sidecar.

To finish this tasting, hot chocolate sauce is poured over a thin-skinned chocolate ball, which melts to reveal a hillock of crème fraîche ice cream. The sweet, creamy, chocolatey soup awaits spooning. Who says Le Cirque is stuffy?

Questions about customers

“Who is he? He must be important.”

The woman leans toward a friend, sotto voce, as she indicates a man seated in a curving booth the other evening at Le Cirque. The capacious booth could have accommodated six, but it’s just the man and his companion (and some caviar).

The woman’s question, nonsensical at most restaurants, is altogether appropriate at Le Cirque, especially given the restaurant’s history of seating drama. (In Las Vegas, the top tables look onto the fountains; if the room were New York, it would be the tables on either side of the dining room entrance.)

The other evening, another man eats alone. A nearby couple celebrate a special occasion. A second couple, clearly regulars, chat with the sommelier. People hold hands at the fountain tables. And a group of six laughingly occupies a booth. It’s hard to tell, thanks to striking agelessness, who is the mother (or second wife?), who is the daughter (niece?), and who might be the girlfriend (?) of the younger man (son? nephew?).

Dishes and Champagne sail by. Snippets of French rise above the hubbub, customers conversing with staff. There’s not an empty seat in the dining room; the overflow fills the restaurant’s tiny bar and lounge. Should we have another flute, darling?

The circus is back in town.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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