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Only in New York, kids, only in New York, as the columnist Cindy Adams puts it. I’d made our dinner reservation for the middle of the week, hoping that Le Cirque 2000 would be a bit quieter than usual. My mistake. It’s only 7:30 p.m., and already the tony midtown Manhattan restaurant is jammed to overflowing. Occupying the maitre d’ stand is the venerable proprietor, Sirio Maccioni himself. I announce myself, and the eminent restaurateur looks me over as a bespoke tailor might an insolvent client. Sirio’s all business tonight. My guest hasn’t arrived yet, and the table isn’t ready. With a wave of his hand, he directs me: Take a seat in the foyer. Over there, please. To get over there, I have to nudge my way through a crowd of elegantly dressed toffs. Here are the Mike Wallaces, there the writer Dominick Dunne. Disoriented, no doubt, by the presence of such glitterati star-power, I somehow manage to bump smack into Barbara Walters — or, perhaps, she into me. It matters not, for having now gone tush-to-tush with Ms. Wa-Wa, I am reduced to babbling a shamefaced apology and beating a hasty retreat. Seated at a small cocktail table, nursing a glass of champagne, I watch as a TV camera crew ascends the grand stairwell to my right. The object of their desire: the doyenne of New York’s gossip columnists, the redoubtable Liz Smith. It’s only then that it dawns on me: Mike and Barbara and Nick — along with a few hundred other media celebrities — are here tonight for a party to celebrate the publication of Smith’s steamy new memoirs. The kitchen, I begin to fear, will be overwhelmed; and the cuisine may well suffer for it. Not to worry. When the big front doors next swing open, it’s to make way for an unassuming-looking man of middle age in horn-rimmed glasses and with thick salt-and-pepper colored hair. But now Maccioni has hopped from behind the maitre d’ stand, his formerly pursed lips turned into a world-encompassing smile. Effusive hand-shaking and whispered confidences follow. Why all the fuss? My guest, of course: Harvard-trained lawyer and longtime Vogue magazine food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, author of “The Man Who Ate Everything” and star of his own show on the New York cable TV network Metro. Sirio’s son Mauro shows us to our table. He’s one of three Maccioni “boys” in the family business. Mauro’s aide de camp, the personable young wine director Ralph Hersom, wants to know what we’d like to start with. We could taste some 1990 Bordeaux — a fine and costly vintage. “A glass of this, a glass of that,” he suggests. “There’s always a bit of spillage when you decant, if you know what I mean.” We start with the second-growth Ch. Gruaud-Larose. Soon, Mauro is back, bearing a silver tray stacked chin-high with white truffles almost the size of baseballs. My eyes pop at the sight. “Are these from Alba?” Steingarten wants to know. “My mom, she brought them home, right off the plane, two days ago,” Mauro replies, beaming at the thought of all those irreplaceable (and outrageously expensive) white truffles slipping through the hated customs. Steingarten picks one up, bounces it in his hand. The price: $1,800 to $2,000 a kilo, a grinning Mauro tells us. Then he says, “You don’t want to order off the menu. I tell Pierre, the chef, to prepare for you.” Next thing you know, not one but two cooks — new executive chef Pierre Schaedelin and his old boss, departing head chef Sottha Khunn — come striding out of the kitchen. “Mr. Steingarten, so good to see you again,” they say, almost as one. “You don’t like the white truffles, do you?” Khunn asks, laughing at his little joke. Schaedelin adds, “We cook with plenty of white truffles tonight. For you.” Me, I’m just along for the ride. Our first course is a galette of potatoes with Beluga caviar — lots and lots of caviar. “People ask me if I get treated differently at restaurants,” Steingarten says, between bites. “Not really,” he ventures, stretching the word out. “I just get more caviar and truffles than you do.” Obviously. One of the sommeliers is looking over my shoulder. “Maybe some champagne with your galette, Mr. Steingarten?” he asks. “I don’t actually like the taste of champagne with caviar,” says Steingarten. “What else would you propose?” “Maybe some ice-cold vodka from Estonia.” Vodka it is, ice-cold too. The sommelier’s boss, Hersom, is standing behind Steingarten, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in my direction. (He comes over, whispers in my ear: “How can you drink that stuff? You’ll never be able to taste the wine.”) Utterly undeterred, Steingarten licks up his vodka. “I was with Ruth Reichl at a small restaurant on Duane Street,” Steingarten says of the Gourmet editor in chief. But when the entr�es arrive, he stops mid-sentence, holds up his plate, pulls off his glasses, and studies the galette — intently. “It’s a refined version of the one they serve at l’Ami Louis,” he says, referring to the historic Parisian bistro. “Pat Wells” — Patricia Wells, the restaurant critic of the International Herald Tribune — “gets it all wrong in her book. That’s not at all how you make it.” “Now aren’t you glad you didn’t drink any of that vodka?” Ralph Hersom asks me as he sets glasses of 1990 Ch. de Sales and Ch. Calon-Segur in front of us. “I’ll have you know that my tastebuds are working perfectly, vodka or no vodka,” Steingarten says. “I can’t speak for him, though,” he says, looking at me. I decide I’d better get on with the interview while we both can still see straight. I ask Steingarten about his early life. He went to Harvard College, Steingarten tells me, “class of 1965, major in English.” But he was also a member of the editorial board of the humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon. “I think I was the only undergraduate in my time not to have been recruited by the CIA,” he says. Instead, Steingarten entered Harvard Law School, class of 1968. (He never practiced big-firm law, preferring to go solo or work in tandem with friends.) Just as we’re starting to talk about his time as an aide to former Boston mayor Kevin White (whose other top aide was Barney Frank), Sirio Maccioni himself shows up at our table — accompanied by a TV camera crew. They film as Steingarten pronounces judgment on the galettes: “This is just fantastic. Perfect with the vodka.” Incredibly, no one in the large dining room seems to be paying more than a few seconds’ attention to the TV crew, the lights, the cameras, or the sound booms. Much less to Jeff Steingarten and John Anderson. Are they all that jaded? Risotto decorated with huge slices of white truffles appears on the table. I start nibbling on one. Steingarten corrects me: “The decorative truffles were frozen. Write that down! Here I am, a lawyer, and I know that!” By now, there’s also a bottle of white Meursault on the table. A ’98 from Domaine Matrot. It’s delicious with the turbot with porchini mushrooms and shrimp that follows. There are also glasses of the 1990 Ch. Lascombes and Ch. Haut-Batailley. The latter doesn’t seem quite right to me. And so I blunder into oenophilic purgatory: “I think this wine is slightly corked,” I say, innocently, foolishly. “Oh, really,” Steingarten says. “I’ve never understood that term, ‘corked.’ How would you define it?” Worse, he summons Hersom’s underling. “This gentleman thinks the wine is corked. Could we have your professional opinion?” Swirl, swirl. Sniff, sniff. “No, not corked.” Of course not. Our table talk eventually, thank God, turns to an erudite discourse about breadmaking, a particular source of delight for the learned Mr. Steingarten. Five minutes into it, I am utterly lost beneath a mass of detail. It’s with relief then that I spy our waiter, a covered dish in hand. Partridge with foie gras and white truffles is set before us along with pommes souffles — “one of the miracles of cooking,” Steingarten says, beaming at the thought. We both earnestly tuck into our partridges. Discussion ceases for about 10 seconds. When we look up, there’s a trio of wandering musicians at our table. They’re from Seville, with tambourine, guitar, and mandolin in hand. And they’re here to serenade — us. Unfortunately, the camera crews have returned with them. The dratted booms, lights, and cameras are all back with a vengeance. Nothing, absolutely nothing, though, deters Jeff Steingarten, from his food or his wine — a very nice half-bottle of Morey-St. Denis rouge from the grower Hubert Lignier. When peace is restored to our happy valley, Steingarten pronounces judgment on his rivals. He pokes at his partridge, has a sip of red burgundy, and adds, “I think I’m getting better every year.” He looks at me intently and says, “Don’t you think so?” Then: “Well, I do.”

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