He dares to have fun. He is the quintessential dashing Italian. But behind all the bravura, he's in a perpetual state of high hysteria. And all his best customers are a part of it. He involves you in some kind of ancient Italian agony that is far beyond the dashing maitre d". This is how the New York Times' food critic Michael Batterberry described Sirio Maccioni in the latter's memoir.
Who would have thought that the man Batterberry wrote so adoringly about, started his career as a waiter on board the S.S. Atlantic. With his sleeves rolled up, his face flushed from the firing, Sirio spent years bent over kitchen slabs. His wanted to convey to the New Yorkers of the 70s that Italian food wasn't a cheap imitation of what was then referred to as Fine French Food(FFF).
In 1974 he joined hands with the celebrated chef Jean Vergnes to co-found Le Cirque. Downright French in his demeanour, Vergnes felt that anything Italian on the menu would 'contaminate' it. But men with vision have their way and Sirio managed to sneak in a playful element in the theme of the restaurant - adorning it with illustrations of monkeys and circus clowns.
One day, a customer who knew of Sirio's Italian roots, requested him to ignore the menu and prepare what's now known as a pasta primavera. The dish that landed on the table was heavy on cream, filled with string beans, pine nuts, frozen peas and broccoli. It quickly became Le Cirque's standout offering.
Bellagio's Le Cirque is replete with colourful circus tents and paintings of circus scenes.
Soon, requests for more Italian dishes followed. These brought the green herb-tinted risotto with pre-pubescent quail, artichokes and wild mushrooms and salt-crust-baked chicken on the menu. Le Cirque was soon one of the city's most famous joints, making loyal patrons of movie stars and presidents, singers and business barons.
When the owners of Delhi's recently-built Leela Palace Hotel were on the lookout for a standout restaurant offering, providence brought them to New York, and Le Cirque. The two families shared similar philosophies on business and the finer points of life. After a brief visit to Delhi, it was settled. Sirio would take the Le Cirque franchise outside the United States for the first time.
In Delhi, executive chef Glenn Eastman and chef de Cuisine Mickey Bhoite make sure the bistro-like freshness is kept alive with local ingredients. The morel mushrooms come from Kashmir and the sea food is flown in from southern coasts. Besides the cult-favourite pasta primavera, the menu features Mama Egi's ravioli, Tuna in Pistachio Crust, Paupiette of Black Cod, Creme Brulee and the famous Floating Island 'Le Cirque' dessert, a personal favourite of Mauro Maccioni, Sirio's youngest son. "Most of these delicacies are creations of our legendary chefs Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, and Alain Sailhac and have been on our menu for decades," he says.
The biggest challenge of setting up an established brand in a new country is whether new customers will understand and enjoy its character. Mauro was confident it would work because Indians are infact a large portion of Le Cirque's regular clientele in the US.
"Those who've eaten at Le Cirque's New York, Las Vegas and Bellagio, are happy that we've brought it to their home country," he adds. He was also sure that the new Indian foodie was ready for the kind of taste, service and atmosphere Le Cirque stood for.
Le Cirque at the Leela Palace deliberately underplays some of the brand's elements. For example, they've replaced the monkeys and bears on the crockery with clowns, deferring to local cultural sensitivities. And in an effort to accommodate vegetarians, 30 per cent of the dishes are free of meat, fish or even egg. In fact, they've even reduced the French influence on the menu by incorporating more Italian flavours, which Indian diners are familiar with.
The Maccioni family beams proudly from the walls where you can catch them arm in arm with some of the world's most famous names. You're always in good company at Le Cirque.